On December 1 it will be six months that my girlfriend Marta and I moved from Frankfurt, Germany to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Time to look back on an exciting second half 2010. Time to look back on a couple of things I have learned since June as a fresh European expat in Europe.
Time flies faster the older you get. In comparison to a lot of my colleagues that wasn’t exactly a huge step geographically – many of my coworkers at Blast Radius come from New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil or the U.S. From my hometown Frankfurt it is a mere 4 hour ride to Amsterdam, less than for example to Hamburg. But it’s six months now in a different country…not really far away from home. But further than what I expected sometimes. And before you think I am frustrated to be here? Not at all…it was a great decision to come here.
Most of my professional routine takes place in a very international environment with many young people that come from halfway around the world. The Dutch aspect of my life here is developing but it still isn’t where it is supposed to be. No time for language classes right now…and the Dutch don’t make it particularly easy for me to learn their language. All of them speak English (and 3 other languages) fluently. So why should they bother to let you stutter your order for a Koffie Verkeerd when it is so much easier to just speak English?
Sad truth – after six months in the Netherlands my Dutch is worse than my Spanish after a week in Madrid. But that’s a different story…
Looking back on these exciting six months I tried to summarize what I have learned since June. And that was indeed an awful lot of new stuff…
Insight 1 – The European Union was a pretty cool idea
The European Union…a bureaucratic monster that keeps on spending money on laws and projects that no one really understands. A political construct that is neither a state nor just an international organization…a hybrid that is all or nothing at all? Nope. I carried this stereotype around with me as well. As you live in Germany as a German, in Italy as an Italian or in France as a Frenchman you won’t necessarily spot the big advantages of the EU beyond the occasional beach holidays where you now don’t need to think about exchange rates anymore.
Living in Amsterdam really means to live in an international city. And when I say international I mean international and not American or British in the first place. The city derives its heritage from the port and the tradition of a trading hub. And this has turned Amsterdam into a place which almost exclusively seems to be populated by Expats from all over the world and Europe in particular. The EU’s harmonization of markets helped a lot.
It may sound normal to sit in a Café at Kaizersgracht as a German nowadays and have the chance to get to know Italians, Swedes, Danes or Spaniards. But remind yourself what a privilege that is – only twenty years ago that would have been very complicated and 70 years ago almost impossible. And as you find out about christmas in Lisbon, birthday parties in Stockholm, or painting in Luxembourg chances decrease to zero that anyone of us might be willing to wage war anytime in the future. High five EU.
Insight 2 – Being part of a commonwealth is a cool thing (minus the historical genocide thing)
Europe’s growing European character is one side of the story. A slight disadvantage for non-Anglosaxon nations in a globalized setting is the other side. As a German, Frenchman or Spaniard you will always speak, write or present English as a second language – no matter how good you are. There will always be slightly different German accent, culture and background when you are part of a – usually – quite Anglosaxon or American group. Did I say German accent? Of course I mean ze German accent. A couple of weeks ago I thought about integrating John Cleese’s classic line ‘Don’t mention the war’ into the signature of my emails. I later decided not to do it – but if you don’t know the classic clip from Fawlty Towers check it out here…
It is great to really feel these days of ‘Don’t mention the war’ are finally over. I love to discuss history and love to speak about Germany. But while it is not primarily about our past anymore, I sense Germans as well as Frenchmen, Spaniards, Swedes still have to work a bit harder to easily fit into a globalized, often anglo-saxon dominated world society. While many of my colleagues come from different countries, many of them share one background – the Commonwealth. An Australian might have been grown up 8,000 miles from London. But he still shares TV shows, jokes, beer brands with a Kiwi, Brit or South African that a German doesn’t. Proximity is not rationale for similar cultural backgrounds – language is.
In short – a Commonwealth is a handy thing. Especially with a couple of cool, warm countries as part of it.
Insight 3 – Holland is awesome, but where in the world can I find a Dutch restaurant?
And then there are the Dutch. What a nice bunch of really weather-proof people. I really, really like this country, Amsterdam, the liberalism, the architecture. If you haven’t been to Holland in general and to Amsterdam in particular – come here and check it out.
The good thing about becoming a new citizen of a high-profile city such as Amsterdam is you can challenge your own stereotypes. I say Amsterdam, you say Party, right? Well, not quite. The city’s red light district along with the liberal drug laws form the city’s reputation as a party capital. Only scarcely do foreigners reflect Amsterdam’s constant quest for ‘Gezelligkeit’ (cozyness), a very lively high-culture, and the fact that you will have a hard time to find a place to have dinner at after 9pm. All aspects of my very different picture of Amsterdam that I am part of now. Oh…and one more thing. Holland, I love you. But I think you have the most undeveloped cuisine that I have ever encountered. But you have La Chouffe. And that’s cool too – even though it’s Belgian.
Insight 4 – Germany should rethink a couple of things
Living in the Netherlands is quite a culture shock for a German. The country is succesful for centuries due to its constant ability to adapt. The reason why pretty much every Amsterdamer speaks at least one foreign language almost fluent (English is almost the No 1 language), the multicultural surrounding, the hospitality to foreigners, the simplicity of immigration processes…all that is not at all common in my country of origin. Additionally I was almost shocked how much different the German educational concept is when compared to pretty much the rest of the planet.
While a German male of my age went to school until he was 19, maybe started an apprenticeship (2 years), went to the army/civil service job (1 year) and studied another 4-6 years until he was 28-30, we nowadays compete with the rest of the world. And the rest of the world gets out of university with an age of 22-23. Oh…and as a digital strategist I stare at social media penetration statistics and try to explain why Germany still is significantly lagging behind. I try to explain this phenomenon as best as I can. But fact is, Germany will lose its heritage in innovation pretty soon.
Insight 5 – Being an expat once in your life is a great thing to experience…
Living in a different country is an experience that is just great. In my six moths here I have learned so much more about the realities of other cultures than ever before. Chatting with friends and colleagues about how they celebrate christmas in New Zealand, what kids in South Africa were afraid of in the 1980s and what the perception of a Brazilian towards Germans is – priceless.
Apart from that I love to be part of a new everyday routine that is now more or less Dutch. A very skilled young cartoon author, Toby Morris, has published this everyday experience of expats in Amsterdam in his cartoon ‘Alledaags’. 333 cartoons about his first year in Amsterdam. And I have already experienced half of his cartoons – my first Bitterballen, watching the fat Spiderman on Dam Square, or just being annoyed by Amsterdam’s weed tourists.
Hey, it’s a pleasure to be an expat. No matter if your new home is 5 hours or 5,000 miles away from your parents – you suddenly become part of a an amorphous, worldwide society. You become part of something that makes you learn something you have never thought about. In my case it is Alledaags.