Angst: Preparing for an overseas sabbatical

Preparing for a six month sabbatical overseas was daunting. My sabbatical takes me to Aachen, Germany from January until July, a span of six months. In addition, I had to prepare for my daughters for this trip. This blog post is about how I moved with my family to a new country, focusing on month leading up to the sabbatical once I knew where and when I was going. A post about the longer-term planning will come arrive.


Thanks to Sara Zaske (author of Achtung Baby, which I highly recommend), I knew I should print out and prepare folders full of important copies of documents to navigate German bureaucracy. This was the smartest way I prepared. Some of the documents I packed include various forms and instructions from the Fulbright Commission.

  • Copies of Fulbright documents, including the letter indicating I could work in Germany for longer than 90 days
  • Copies of the invitation letter from RWTH Aachen
  • Copies of health insurance (required for living in Germany)
  • Birth certificates (with extra copies)
  • Copies of passports
  • Copies of report cards (for my daughters)
  • Copies of all travel documents

Deciding what to pack

It became clear that I would need a lot of outfits for work, conferences, relaxation, and running. I also needed shoes for all these activities. I used the Set Cover problem to decide what clothes and shoes pack that could “cover” most of my outfits across these activities I would take part in. It became immediately clear that my shoes and wardrobe would have to be compatible with the color black if I wanted to fit my clothing into one large suitcase. I had to pack shoes for many occasions, and I decided that my outfits should mostly go with a series black shoes (sandals, flats, pumps, booties, boots). Gray was a second choice for color compatibility. I left a pair of jeans at home because they did not go with enough outfits or shoe choices. My kids packed a few small games for us to play in Germany. It was nice to have some entertainment.

Preparing my devices (phone and iPad) for the sabbatical was one of the mostย important ways I prepared for the trip.

  • I downloaded a map of Aachen on google maps.
  • I downloaded the google translate app on all of my devices, and I downloaded German so I could translate when offline.
  • I downloaded the latest version of google voice on my phone so I would have access to a stable US phone number that could make phone calls and receive SMS texts.
  • I downloaded a few books on the Kindle for my children to read.
  • I created a WhatsApp account that I started using with folks in Germany.
  • Other apps included Deutsche Bahn, a conversion app (for distances, temperatures, etc.), and Aachen’s public transit app.
  • I forwarded all of my travel confirmations to Trip It.

I purchased and/or a few items that were extremely useful before my trip:

  • Outlet adapters with USB adapters (Six was about right for the four of us). We like the ones with USB ports.
  • I bought a discount Deutsche Bahn card (the Bahn 25) for discount rail tickets. I purchased a flexible, discount ticket for my trip from the Frankfurt airport to Aachen ahead of time.
  • I bought a new Amazon Kindle Fire for my kids to read books abroad, since English speaking books would be hard to find. We checked out copies of digital books from our library in Wisconsin, and we bought a few e-books as needed.
  • I bought a packable water-resistant, wind-proof Primaloft jacket from Lands End for a prior trip that was perfect for my sabbatical as an all-purpose coat in Aachen, where it has been cold, rainy, and windy.
  • A small wireless bluetooth speaker. It was nice to carry around a speaker and helped me stream podcasts and audiobooks while at home. But I could have lived without this.
  • A copy of Rick Steves Germany. I could not live without this.
  • Samsonite compression packing bags. I basically zip-locked my belongings in these large bags and squeezed the air out to pack more of my belongings into my suitcase more tightly. This was helpful for sweaters and other bulky items.

I packed a few extra tote bags and backpacks that could be laid flat in suitcases. These ended up being very useful, since we did not have a car and had to walk home while carrying our heavy grocery bags. I decided to purchase lotion, hair products, hand sanitizer, and other heavy toiletries in Germany to keep my bag lighter. This was a good decision, mostly because it was fun to shop for new items in Germany. I packed a few travel size shampoo and conditioner to tide me over. Toiletries and cleaning products are significantly cheaper in Germany. I also packed a few old towels, hot pads, sheets, fleece throws, and pillowcases to be able to use beds in the new apartment (and not make the return journey). In retrospect, I should have done some research on where to purchase thrifty towels and sheets near my flat. But it was nice having some immediate towels and hot pads to use. There are many discount stores in Germany, so it was extremely easy for us to buy what we needed in Aachen with very little effort. We bought all sorts of things at Aldi, including fleece sock liners, hoodies, sneakers (we quickly wore out the sneakers we brought due to so much walking), and even a coat when my daughter’s zipper broke. We are lucky that Germans like a bargain. There were several discount stores within half a mile of our flat.

COVID-19 broke out in Germany before I was able to stock up on disinfecting wipes and gel. That was unfortunate, but that was a fluke event that I could not anticipate. We are still able to wash our hands and use cleaning products. I will likely write a blog post just about COVID-19 at some point.

I decided to get a SIM card for my cell phone in Germany. My research indicated that Aldi Talk was the best plan in the country, but the registration process was difficult. I had to register for the SIM cards in Aldi with my passport, and the set up process took was confusing for me. It took me a few days to set up the SIM card, mostly because the PUK code did not work the first time I tried it, and I was confused on how to get my phone to recognize the new SIM card. It was a long time without a cell phone.

Preparing for life overseas.

I had to prepare to live overseas. I made a list and I started to think about changes months ahead of time. One of the challenges was to ensure that I could access all of my accounts that require two factor authentication (my university, google, dropbox, Paypal, Box, Amazon, others). I did not yet have a cell phone in Germany, so I changed the mobile phone number associated with my accounts to my google voice number. I signed up for as many email statements instead of mail statements for my bank, credit cards, insurance, and utilities. I unsubscribed from email lists for shopping in the US. I let my bank know I would be traveling. I made sure my credit cards and insurance accounts were set to auto-paid.

I suspended my car insurance for six months. I called to cancel various activities that my daughters were involved in (Irish dance, after school care, gymnastics).

Preparing my home for the move was easy, since my partner could not spend the entire sabbatical in Germany. He was able to look after the house and the cats aside from his planned trips to Germany to see us.

Preparing my children for overseas.

I had a plan for the children to take online classes while we were away. I was in contact with the children’s school teachers the year prior to moving. Fall parent teacher conferences in November was a good time to have a personal conversation with all teachers and sketch out a plan for the January transition. This made it easy to touch base to discuss follow up issues with teachers right before we left. I planned to fly to Germany the week after my oldest took her high school finals in January. This allowed the children to have a few days to transition to online courses before we moved. The children each brought a chromebook for school, headphones, mechanical pencils and pens to Germany.

I set up an appointment with folks in Germany (through the university and the cultural integration office) to find classes and extracurricular activities for the children. I found it helpful to be in touch with everyone involved and to be patient. Online school and life in Germany were different, and as a result, I was not always sure what questions I should ask. It took me awhile to wrap my head around what routines and schedules would look like.

Making the trip.

My children and I each packed one big suitcase and one big carry on.

They liked having a say in what they packed. A packing list helped, since that provided the guidelines for them. I packed a second carry on bag for extra items that was only half full. This way, we could manage our luggage from Madison to Aachen by plane and train. My daughters deviated from the packing list and added a few extra dense items (games, books, and lots of liquid toiletries). Two of our bags were overweight by a few pounds. My set cover approach was thwarted! But it worked out. I was able to tuck a few items into the half full carry on. When we picked up our luggage in Frankfurt, everyone was able to manage their own bags on the trains, and we made it to our new home in one piece.

Our new apartment was not fully furnished. I had to come up with a plan to furnish it ahead of time. I placed an order for IKEA furniture a week before I left and chose a delivery time for the day after I arrived. IKEA in Germany does not have next day delivery, and orders are delivered about a week after they are placed. I was incredibly nervous about my plan, but it worked perfectly. It was thrilling to get the delivery. We could get settled into our new home. The best part was that when my kids put together furniture and arranged their rooms, it helped them feel like it was their new home. I’ll write more about our first steps in Germany in another blog post.

In summary

The title of this post refers to Angst, because there was so much to worry about and so much in the air. This weight was most acute when it came to my concern for my three daughters. I felt the weight of this uncertainty and angst the most the month before leaving for Germany. I knew I would be find and could roll with the punches, but this trip was entirely new to them and was a stressful new experience. I was relieved when pieces of the planning fell into place.

In my next sabbatical post, I will blog about first steps in Germany. Read more blog posts about my 2020 sabbaticalย here.


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