This post is about my first month getting situated on my sabbatical in Germany. The second month was consumed by the spread of COVID-19, and I had to return to the U.S. in less than two months. This post should be entitled “Auf Wiedersehen Deutschland, Hallo Wisconsin!” but I will save the COVID-19 related experiences for another post.
My two few days was solely dedicated to moving into my apartment. In my last post, I wrote about how I preemptively placed an order for IKEA furniture a week before leaving the US so that the order would be delivered right after we arrived. This plan worked perfectly. Additionally, it felt satisfying to put together our furniture and get settled into our new home. We also made a couple of trips to grocery stores to stock up on necessary food and water. We brought a few tote bags to carry our groceries home. Luckily, we have two discount grocery stores within half a mile of our apartment. I highly recommend taking children to a grocery store and letting them pick out a bunch of new food to try, even familiar favorites like Oreos. We made an effort to try new things up front, and that helped us discover a few favorite new foods early on. Everything was new, and this was more difficult for the children than it was for me, but we enjoyed sampling the many types of pastries, cakes, and chocolates available in Germany.
Eventually we picked up a few things to make life in Germany easier: a water cooker for boiling water, tupperware, a hair dryer and curling iron, a big European drying rack, dishes and kitchenware, notebooks, and a mop.
Thanks to the documentation from the Department of State, who manages the Fulbright, and the RWTH Aachen Welcome Center, I printed out all the documents we needed. I had a huge binder full of documents. But the paperwork was overwhelming. The children were almost entirely shielded from the bureaucracy, and I was relieved that the stress of moving to Germany fell on my shoulders. Bureaucratic tasks for adjusting to German life included:
- Resident registration and related tasks
- Cultural integration / education of the children and related accounts (all day care, bus tickets)
- University registration as a visiting professor
- Public transportation and train accounts
- Bank account
- Cell phone SIM card activation
Registering with the citizen’s office in Germany was a pain. This was something everyone must do within two weeks of when they move to a new apartment, not just newcomers to Germany. Appointments can be made but there is a one month wait, so the only way to register is to arrive at the office at 7:30am with the children, pull a ticket (like at the DMV in the US), and wait. On our first try, the central computer for our region of Germany used to register everyone in the region went down, and we had to come back the next day first thing in the morning.
After registering our address, we applied for a residence permit with the immigration office. Again, the children came with me. We could complete this step at the university, and it was very easy. We had all of our papers ready and brought passport photos that we printed out ahead of time at a drugstore in the US. The photos needed in Germany are basically the same but cut to a smaller size. The person working in the office cut our photos to a smaller size, so we did not have to come back with new photos.
I needed a bank account in Germany for my Fulbright. It was easy to set up an account with the N26 bank.
Once the children were in school, paperwork was never-ending. One week I hypothesized that German bureaucracy is like a marathon because I had hit the “wall” the previous week. Another time it felt like a series of nesting dolls, with each task leading to another smaller sub-task that I could not see earlier. I thought I had checked something off my list (registering the children for a bus pass), but then I had to take the form to a city office. That didn’t end the registration process. Instead, I was told to wait for something to arrive in the mail, fill it out, and return it. Finally, it seemed like an Escape Room. You keep think you’re getting close to figuring out how to complete the paperwork, but then there is another puzzle (or puzzling form) to figure out. I did better once I accepted that I needed to devote a few hours per week to paperwork. Sadly, we had to return to the US just after I figured everything out and was ready to settle into my research routine.
Getting used to public transportation was another step in the adjustment process. I find it easy to navigate with public transportation. I used two apps: google maps and the AVV app to find real-time bus route information in Aachen.
I discovered some news sources. I subscribed to the Local (expat friendly German news in English) and Deutsche Welle. I listened to the weekly podcast/radio program “Inside Europe” from the Deutsche Welle. “Slow German” was great for practicing German. Paying for a subscription to the Local was well worth it, especially to keep on track of COVID-19 news.
I was glad I had these items with me
- Buffs/multi-functional headwear The knock-off versions are about $1 apiece and have a lot of uses.
- A deck of cards and/or Uno cards.
- Travel yoga mat.
- Smartphone apps: google maps with downloaded maps of places we visited, google translate, and public transportation apps
- First aid kit: thermometer, band-aids, Tylenol, children’s Tylenol, children’s Advil, Neosporin, Aquaphor, and Hydrocortisone. I used all of these items, and each time I was relieved I didn’t have to make a special trip to the store. I’m proud to say I had no mishaps with the electric bread slicer in my apartment.
First days were fun too
The first few days were full of fun discoveries. We discovered the endless supply of chocolate at area stores. We also purchased an annual zoo pass for the zoo that was a quarter mile walk from our apartment. We visited 3-5 times per week, usually for a long stroll through the zoo by each of our favorite animals.
In my next sabbatical post, I will blog about how I got started with sabbatical planning.