Our first visit to the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners office) was supposed to be a confident and hopeful one. Instead, I left frozen and terrified. With paperwork in hand, our goal was to apply for resident permits. Josh’s permit was easy. He had proof of employment within Germany. I, however, worked for a US company and couldn’t get residency just as a spouse, either. I needed to be able to have some reason to legally stay in Germany. Finally, we realized that my German language courses qualified and my application for residency was submitted.
But the fear had settled in my stomach like a rock and I had shut down. In my head, I was already planning my one-way ticket back to the states, packing my bags and figuring out who gets to be with Sherlock.
The Ausländerbehörde is the scariest place to be. I haven’t met anyone who enjoys going there. I think it stems from a paranoia of watching American news, because everything I know about going to the foreigners office includes the phrases “illegal aliens,” “build a wall,” or “bad hombres.” This place is filled with different people from around the world and I wonder if they are as scared as I am, double checking their paperwork and praying the government employees give them the benefit of the doubt.
We are all learning how to live in a new place with new rules and new culture. Sometimes it can feel like we’re fighting a battle just to stay, pleading our cases as if someone is looking for one good reason to kick us out. I know from experience that this is not the case, but I still can’t sleep at night before any appointment here.
I recognize that there are significant differences between an immigrant, a refugee, and an expat. I am not fleeing my country. I can travel freely. I get to go back one day.
But aren’t we all on the quest for a better life?
I was back at the Ausländerbehörde this week picking up residence permits, the waiting room filled to the brim with immigrants, expats and refugees. A group of people from the Middle East were talking to each other in their native language while waiting for their numbers to be called. An office door opened, and an older couple came out, excitedly waving their residence permit. They came back to the group sitting in the waiting area and showed off their permit to everyone. I made eye contact with another guy who was talking to the couple and he smiled wide and said “finally!” I gave the group the biggest teary smile.
The joy and relief of that moment has no language barrier. It’s universal.
I am reading Harry Potter again. While I kept most of my copies in the States, I brought 3 with me.* One I read on the plane (OotP, it’s my favorite, don’t @ me). And 2 versions Josh got me as a gift.
They’re not in English.
Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen and Harry Potter und die Kammer des Schreckens.
For a while, I would open it up, read the first page and have no clue what I was reading. I knew from memory what it should say, but the language comprehension wasn’t there. It became a game. Every few weeks, I would open the book and see how far I could get. At first, it started with a sentence, then a page, then two pages. Now I am chapters in and craving more, even though I know how the story progresses. I have a system down (I know, very Ravenclaw of me):
Read the chapter.
Underline any unknown/repeated words.
Lookup the words and create a lexicon at the end of the chapter.
Re-read the chapter with the audiobook.
It’s a slow process, but it’s rewarding, and I love seeing familiar and famous lines from the text pop out to me auf Deutsch:
Mr. H Potter
Im Schrank unter der Treppe
The biggest thing is that reading Harry Potter is getting me familiar with my new language and helping me feel more comfortable speaking like a local. It’s just one of the ways I am recognizing I am on the path to fluency.
Learning a new language is very difficult, especially for native English speakers. There are usually two different responses you get when people hear you attempting to speak another language:
They will be insulted.
They will switch to English.
Most of the time, people will just switch to English, which makes it more difficult to practice German. The best way to combat this is to ignore it and keep speaking in German. The best is going through an entire conversation and never switching to English.
I was able to speak with a florist, ask and answer questions, give compliments, make a payment, and say goodbye without switching to English! It was amazing!
I was riding a high when I left the shop, and on the way home, was stopped on the street by a girl who had a question. She spoke so fast and took me by surprise. Eyes wide, I sputtered and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German.” IN ENGLISH. I laughed nervously, she tossed her hands up and laughed, said “OK” and kept walking.
Well, there goes all the XP I earned at the flower shop.
Setbacks like these are expected, especially since I have only been learning German and living in Germany for about 5 months. Still, I am slowly recognizing fluency on my part, and am more determined than ever to turn this blog into a German language blog! Just kidding. Here’s what I’ve noticed:
My spelling in both German and English is now bad. This is mainly because I am still in between worlds in my head, and mixing things up or thinking in German when trying to write in English, or vice versa. I wrote cash as casch. I constantly swap ei and ie.
My native language lexicon is slowly disappearing. I don’t think it will ever go away, but the less I use the words, the further in my mind they are stored and the harder they are to find. I forgot what an ambulance was called, so I called it a Hospital Car, which, my brain probably already knew, is basically the literal translation of the German word for ambulance: Krankenwagen.
Anyone learning a second language is bound to fill in unknown words with their native tongue. It’s a natural step to fluency and a perfectly normal way to learn. It’s also normal to flip it and use the second language while speaking in their native tongue. When talking with my international friends, we usually speak in English and use German as a filler language for any words that we don’t know or can’t communicate the meaning properly in English.
Filling or Forgetting
When I first started learning German, I would unintentionally substitute unknown German words with the same word in Spanish. It acted as a filler word, because once I learned the word in German, it became more difficult for me to remember the word in Spanish. Just like Hospital Car, I know my Spanish is probably in there somewhere, but it’s getting buried under a new language.
Listening to people talk in another language can be quite relaxing when you have no idea what they’re saying. Contrary to Hollywood’s portrayal, German is not a harsh language. No one is spitting, screaming, or tossing up Nazi salutes when they talk. It’s soft, often quiet and can act as white noise…until you start to understand what they’re saying. Being able to listen to other people’s conversations is one of my favorite things. Walking past a group of people and having your mind go, “Hey! Those are words! I recognize that!” instead of it sounding like a teacher in a Charlie Brown movie is a good feeling.
I moved to Germany with a traveler’s vocabulary. Hallo, entschuldigung, danke, tschüss. While I tried to study the language back in the States, I found it boring and difficult. I wasn’t motivated, and I had no one to talk to. Instead, I put all my hope in learning by total immersion. There wasn’t any concrete goal, just this idea that if I was surrounded by Germans speaking German, I would just magically and passively pick it up. While that is a nice idea, that’s one step up from trying to learn a language in your sleep.
Now, I have attainable goals for 2019. Nothing too crazy, and goals with which I can easily see progress and change:
Read all 7 Harry Potter books in German.
Get a tandem speaking partner.
Wouldn’t it be great if one day, while traveling in Hungary or Italy, where I don’t speak the local language, I can ask, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” and be able to comfortably converse?
10 bucks says they switch to English.
*I also have an Icelandic version, but who are we kidding? That’s never going to happen!
What are your experiences learning or speaking another language? Are there other aspects in life where the same ideas of fluency apply?
P.S. Congrats to Lisa and Steph C. the winners of the Bielefeld mugs! Your packages are in the mail! ☕
Germany does a lot of things right. It’s safe, clean, affordable, and efficient (German engineering is no joke!). Every day I see something so simple and common to life here that would make a big difference back in the States. Germany isn’t perfect. No place is. Here are 6 characteristics that make this country stand out for me.
When we lived in Ohio, we were a single-car household. Josh used his bike to commute or took the bus. It was difficult to do this where we lived because there were few designated bike lanes, and people didn’t know how to drive around cyclists. In Ohio, it was hard to even find sidewalks. If we could, we would walk everywhere and take Sherlock with us. That gets hard to do when you’re forced to walk in the street. When we lived in Ohio, my average mileage walked per month was 21. In Germany, I walk about 90 miles a month. Bielefeld prides itself on its trail system, with parks and greenspaces that wind through neighborhoods and connect to each other. Every trail eventually connects, and the one by our house even takes you all the way to Bad Salzulflen. I’ve taken trails out of curiosity and ended up at soccer fields, cafes, nature preserves, churches, lakes, and castles.
The trail to Bad Salzuflen
Nordpark trail includes a cafe, mini golf, play park, and pond.
Public transportation in most communities in the US takes forever, doesn’t connect well to other cities, and smells bad. Take everything you know about public transport and toss it out, because that is not the case in Germany. The busses and trains are clean, people are quiet and polite, fares are paid, and no one is trying to sell you anything (looking at you, New York). Coming from cities with little to no public transportation system, and having a place where we can use the Stadtbahn, busses, and regional trains to get around, we haven’t felt the need to get a car. The funny thing is, ask around and locals will tell you the Bielefeld transport system isn’t even that good compared to other cities in Germany.
I’ve talked about Germany’s café culture before, and I think it is something to be admired. No restaurant will succeed in Germany unless it has a patio and outdoor seating. Germans love sitting outside for hours on end with their coffee and pastries. Bonus points if the café is in a busy thoroughfare or park and they can people watch while they sip. I enjoy eating out, but I hate feeling rushed by the waitstaff. This will never happen in Germany. Instead, I can relax, enjoy my food and my company without feeling the urge to pre-bus the table and calculate the tip. I always felt guilty in the US, that I was preventing the server from making money. Here, that is not a problem because the staff are paid a living wage and don’t rely on tips. In fact, tipping in Germany isn’t really a thing, you just sort of round up.
When the church bells start ringing Sunday morning, that’s when I usually smack myself in the forehead and remember something I forgot to buy at the Markt. Mist. Can’t get it until Monday, because everything is closed on Sundays (except for cafes and bakeries).
While the shops are closed for religious observance, a law since the 1900s, most Germans aren’t using the time for church. A Pew Research Center survey found that while 71 percent of Germans identified as Christians, most are non-practicing (attend services no more than a few times per year).
The church bells ringing remind Germans that Sunday is less a day of worship, but rather one of leisure, spending it in parks, at cafes, or with family. Having a day where most things are closed forces people to slow down and gives everyone a mini-holiday. No one is thinking about running errands, doing last-minute shopping, or waiting in line. It acts as a soft reset and helps start the next week off right.
Like Sundays, everything is closed on holidays. And this can be a little crazy. For example, Christmas this year was on a Tuesday. The shops were closed that Sunday, then open on Monday (Christmas Eve) until 1 p.m. Then they were closed for Christmas, and what’s called Second Christmas (Boxing Day). That’s pretty much 4 days of closed shops. Luckily, we bought enough toilet paper.
But the locals need all those days off to recover from the hardcore partying they do (not a joke).
On Christmas Eve, our neighbors invited us over for drinks and singing (unfortunately, we couldn’t go, because Josh had the flu). The whole building was up and about singing carols until the early hours of Christmas morning. I don’t think we saw anyone until late that afternoon. New Year’s Eve is even crazier. People stay out all night, shooting fireworks for hours. I have never seen such an amazing firework display than midnight in Germany.
We haven’t been here that long to experience a lot of the holidays, or go on any major vacations, but from what I can tell, Germans take their holiday and leisure time seriously.
Sorry, Cash Only
In the US, we used our credit card for everything. We made a profit with that thing and rarely paid for a flight. Working in optical, I often worked with money, but rarely with cash. In Ohio, people used cash a bit more frequently than card, and debit more frequently than credit. In Germany, credit cards are not a thing and cash reigns supreme. The only place I used my card is at the grocery store, and every time, I get the stink eye. There are a thousand reasons for it, but the main reasons are:
The credit card processing machine takes forever, and it slows down the line.
The cashier never has a pen and has to go find one.
The cashier will inspect your signature and your card to make sure it matches.
I’m pretty sure they can smell my Auslander everytime I whip it out.
Is Dave Ramsey German?
No retail store offers a store credit card like they would in the US. Not even the bank offered credit cards when we signed up for an account. Germany doesn’t encourage buying things with money you don’t have and Germans, as a culture, hate debt. In fact, the word for debt in German is Schuld, which translates to guilt or fault. Most places do not accept credit cards. All payments for phones, internet, etc. must be done through a bank account and cannot be paid with a credit card. We couldn’t even get phones without a German bank account.
Now, I’m not saying that Germany doesn’t have credit cards, or debt. They do. But it’s less than the average American’s $38,000. Having less debt is helped along by the fact that Germans pay no medical bills or tuition.
Since moving to Germany, we have spent less money in general. Unlike the US, Germany doesn’t put an emphasis on things. People dress for the weather, not the latest trends. Black Friday sales exist, but it’s stampede-free. People are community focused instead of commodity focused and it shows in what they value: time, leisure, family, food.
Have you been impressed by cultural differences in a country you visited? What do you think they “got right” that made you want to bring it home with you? What do you think your home country gets right? Let me know in the comments.
P.S. Are you jonesing for a Bielefeld mug? There’s still time to enter the raffle. Just pop your name in the subscription box. (Update: the raffle is now closed! I hope the winners like their mugs!)
(Update: The raffle is now closed. I hope the winners enjoy the mugs! ☕)
My mom always treats holidays and birthdays as “just another day” and while I find that enticing and often easy to do, I don’t think it’s the healthiest mentality. We need a reason to celebrate. It doesn’t have to be a big reason or even a big holiday. You don’t have to celebrate in the streets with thousands of your closest friends. But you can find meaning and joy in telling stories, sharing congratulations and spending time in fellowship.
Most of 2018 didn’t end up being just “another day” for me. It might have been a bit crazier than the average year, considering some major life changes like, I don’t know, uprooting our entire family and moving to another country. 2018 was made up of little moments that made this year pretty great.
Maybe start with coffee with friends. These Bielefeld Weihnachtsmarkt mugs should help. I’m giving away a limited edition 2018 Bielefeld mug to 2 random subscribers.
Subscribe to the blog via email to be entered into the raffle to win a mug. Raffle ends Jan. 7, 2019. Don’t worry, I will pay the shipping. ☕
Feel free to leave a comment to let me know you entered.
May your New Year’s resolution be for more joy in 2019. Cheers. Prost.
Miles walked December 2017: 20.75 (Kent, OH) vs. December 2018: 89.62 miles and still counting (Germany).
A note on subscribing: I’m not doing this to make money, so popping your email in the doobly-doo below isn’t going to do anything except let me know I need to add your name to a hat for the raffle. There’s no fancy newsletter, no cool shills or “influencing.” You’re just going to get an email when I upload a new post, and if you don’t want that, then unsubscribe. It won’t hurt my feelings, I promise. A wise woman once told me to write for myself, so that’s what I do here. If you like it, that’s just icing on the cake. 🍰
In true German fashion, I haven’t seen the sun for weeks. It’s currently raining, and if I didn’t have a clock, I would assume that it was nearing night and not the middle of the day. Welcome to winter in Germany. It’s good Christmas weather though. Unlike the constant 80 degrees I grew up with in California, at least here when you get a sweater for Christmas you can wear it without sweating. Even when it’s not raining here, it’s still cold, colder than Colorado or even Ohio. The cold here is damp and sinks into your skin. The wind whips through the empty trees, smacks you on the back of your neck, and finds every microscopic hole in your pants.
I think the Christmas markets started as a way for people to keep warm in the winter. The combination of Glühwein and bodies comfortably oozing from stand to stand is the only way we can stay warm outside.
What is a Weihnachtsmarkt?
The German Christmas Market, or Weihnachtsmarkt, begins the last weekend in November and lasts until Christmas Eve. While some markets attract thousands of tourists each year for their unique Christmas traditions (looking at you, Aachen), most markets typically have the same elements: stands hawking food, selling handmade goods, Ferris wheels, and the occasional puppet play or choir. The big draw to the Weihnachtsmarkt is the food: Glühwein, Eierpunsch, Bratwurst, Currywurst, Crepes, and Lebkuchen. Winter staples like hot cocoa and Germany’s other water, beer, are also available.
In Bielefeld, the city center is littered with food stands and seating areas all for the Christmas market. Keep walking and they continue, meandering down the alleys and main streets, meeting again in large huddles in the Altstadt and in the church square. While during the day the Weihnachtsmarkt is sparsely populated, at night it flourishes. Lights twinkling and glasses clinking, lines for crepes and Currywurst get crisscrossed and tables are so crowded it’s not unusual to share the top of a trashcan with a group of strangers.
Josh and I experienced this in Bonn, when we visited their Weihnachtsmarkt on a cold Friday night. Bundled in jackets, beanies, scarves and mittens, about five minutes in, my mittens were off and I was sweating through my jacket. We tried some Glühwein, hot mulled wine that reminded us of spiced cider. Like all beverages at these events, it came in a ceramic cup, not a paper one (I have rarely, if ever, been given a paper cup). The drink was €3, and then you pay a €2 pfand, or a deposit for the cup. If you bring the cup back, you get the deposit back.
A couple stands down a crowd of people stood eating Pommes mit Mayo and Bratwurst, the warm diner smell hitting my stomach at full force. Euros in hand, I ordered the Currywurst (I’m obsessed) and Pommes mit Mayo, because Josh wasn’t there to tell me otherwise, and boy was that a mistake. The Currywurst was great as usual. But I will never understand why Germans love mayonnaise on everything. Just straight-up plain mayo on fries. Don’t worry we washed it down with a waffle.
Mixed in with the food stands are local creators selling handmade goods from toys, Christmas decor, little villages, and handmade hats. It’s traditional, yet diverse and eclectic. While the toy stands might be fun for the kids, the big draw is the Riesenrad (Ferris wheel), which in my experience, is the centerpiece of the Weihnachtsmarkt. For kids the Weihnachtsmarkt is a mini-carnival, with goofy Christmas-themed rides scattered throughout the city. Bumper cars, swings, and carousels are popular with families.
Christmas with Community
It’s rare to find these types of Christmas markets in the US. Sure, there are craft fairs and makers markets. But the difficult thing is to find something specifically for Christmas without the flashing lights and inflatable kitsch that makes the States so great. Oddly enough, when we lived in Colorado, we went to Denver’s German Christmas market. It’s pretty accurate. The biggest difference between Christmas in the US and Christmas in Germany is the intention behind it. Here, there is less advertising, less pressure, less stuff. It’s about family and Advent, and togetherness.
It’s raining tonight, the winds are strong, and the temperature is low. But the crowds in the city center are thick, the Glühwein is steaming, and conversation is flowing. Grab a crepe and settle in among the crowd. Germany gets a reputation of having cold people, but that’s just the weather. The people here are warm. They are friendly. The wine helps. Like everyone else, Germans crave community and togetherness. What better way to promote that than with a Weihnachtsmarkt.
What does your community do to celebrate the holidays? Have you been to a Weihnachtsmarkt in Germany or another country? Let me know about it by leaving a comment 👇
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In Germany, Christmas is a big deal. Christmas markets spring up in town centers with stands selling anything from currywurst (my favorite) to crepes. There are Ferris wheels and carnival rides for the children, and spiked eggnog for the adults. Scattered through the Altermarkt, stands selling handmade décor offer a bit of Christmas cheer to bring home. Christmas in Germany feels less flashy than in the US. Sure, people probably have similar things on their Wunschliste, the newest iPhone or gadget. But there is also a charm and simplicity that I find lacking in the malls in the States.
Here are 5 gift ideas inspired by popular Christmas items in Germany
For this mostly Christian country, Advent is a huge deal. Along with the candles and special tea-times on Sundays, Advent is celebrated with the good old-fashioned Adventskalender. But these are not your typical chocolate-a-day you get from Trader Joe’s. The calendars are themed and can be found at any store. From beauty supplies, food, tea, toys, clothes, you name it, people hunt down the type they want and give them throughout the holiday season. (The funniest one I saw was a playboy advent calendar. I was laughing too hard to find out what was inside).
Since our homes are usually flats in shared buildings, nobody has Christmas lights on display outside. Instead, windows are lit with white or red Herrnhut, or Moravian stars. These stars symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and come in a variety of styles, each as stunning as the rest.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever played Catan. 🙋♀️ You can thank (or curse) Germany for that creation. Some of the best board games come out of this country, thanks in part to their obsession with clubs (everyone is in a club), and SPIEL, the largest board game convention in the world which takes place in Essen every year. This year, games like Azul and die Quacksalber (not available in English…yet!) took home the top prize for game of the year.
Teddy Bears and cuddly creatures
For the Kinder (children) or collector, Germany’s oldest toy maker creates cuddle-inducing cheer. Steiff, world-famous for the creation of the teddy bear, draws children and adults into their Christmas window displays. While in Bonn, I nearly missed this experience walking past a massive crowd of people glued to 100 meters of glass. Three people deep and over the heads of little ones was a fantastical forest of animals come to life, all Steiff creatures pushing carts, playing on swings, hiding among trees. The feeling of childlike wonder in the air was palpable as we all hoped that glass would disappear so we could get our hands on that cute little fox.
Not American football, but the real football the rest of the world plays. Or as it’s called here, Fußball. Support your local Bundesliga or the national team even when we haven’t won a game (but we tied twice, so that counts, right?). In the US, you wear your Cavs t-shirts, here, we have Arminia. Or Paderborn, or Dortmund, or Germany. The kit gives people something to be proud of, even if the national team gets knocked out of the world cup in the first round, or the city team hasn’t technically won a game. There’s a sense of community and togetherness that comes on gameday, when the stadium is full and the whole city is wearing blue, white, and black.
Some Christmas Spirit
Maybe this year you can skip the typical consumables and gift cards, and go for a little Christmas charm from Abroad. Choose gifts that promote togetherness and simplicity; encourage laughter and cuddles, and help bring a little Christmas spirit back into the flashy malls of the States.
What’s on your wishlist? And more importantly, what’s on your givelist?
This was my first time leaving Bielefeld by train and traveling by myself. I left Sherlock with a dog sitter (he was in heaven) and took the roughly two hour train ride to Bonn.
Bonn is roughly the same size as Bielefeld in population, with about 325,000 people. The first capital city after the second world war, Bonn was instrumental in rebuilding and reunifying the country and Europe in general. Because of this, the city is both very German and very international at the same time.
In Bielefeld, it’s a struggle to hear anyone speak English, whereas in Bonn, English is spoken freely, along with French, Turkish, and plenty more languages. It made me more comfortable to speak German knowing that if I didn’t know the right word, I could switch to English with no problem and little judgement.
The Local’s Perspective
Our weekend in Bonn wasn’t meant to be one of sightseeing and tourist traps, so I’m sorry to report I don’t have much to tell you on that front. We mostly walked around. Everywhere. The afternoon I arrived, we picked up Falafel from a stand under the train station, then walked down Poppelsdorfer Allee back to Josh’s apartment.
Poppelsdorfer Allee reminds me of Manhattan, only much quieter. There’s a large grassy park with gravel walkways and tall trees lining the edge. One-way streets make up the Allee, with unique and historical townhouses running down both sides. At the end of the Allee sits the Poppelsdorf Castle, now home to the Bonn Botanical Gardens and part of Universität Bonn (how cool would it be to go to class in a castle?!?).
We spent the evening exploring our first Weihnachtsmarkt, but that’s a story for another day.
Bellies full of Currywurst and waffles, we were ready to head back to the apartment, but first needed to stop at Haribo for rations for our journey. Haribo, the world famous gummy bear maker, has its headquarters and factory in Bonn. Walking by the factory store draws you in with the smell of sweets and bright colors. You can’t not go in. They have an entire section devoted to licorice and it smells amazing. There’s a wall of colored gummy bears, à la the M&M store. Choose your flavor. And right across the street is the Lindt store. So basically, I was on a sugar high all weekend. Let’s just be grateful Ritter is in Berlin.
One of my favorite things about living in Europe is the café culture. In the city center are large areas filled with shops and restaurants, and noticeably void of cars. The only noise pollution is from other people’s conversations lingering in the air. Café tables, umbrellas, and benches line the walkways, and on the weekend its impossible to find an empty spot, even in the winter.
People will sit for hours, nursing their cappuccino and nibbling on their pastry, enjoying conversation with their bodies facing those walking by instead of their tablemate. Europeans make people watching an art.
In Bonn, we participated in this centuries-long tradition, and I felt like I was finally beginning to blend in. We spent time in two cafes, taking our time, sipping our drinks and eating our pastries. We watched the people walking by, shared our food, talked, and relaxed. The best thing about café culture is that there is no rush to it. You order, you get your food, and eventually at one point or another, you get your bill. No one is urging you out. You will need to flag someone down if you want anything.
We probably spent an hour eating and even that was too short for Europeans. In fact, a neighboring table of two arrived shortly after we did and was still at the café when we walked past almost 2 hours later!
A Walking Tour
I know I said that I didn’t want my visit to Bonn to be touristy, but there were two things that I really wanted to do when I was there.
See Beethoven’s house and
See the Rhine.
I didn’t even want to go inside Beethoven’s house, I just wanted to see it. So that’s what we did. Traipsing through the Altstadt on a Saturday afternoon, we dodged people at the farmer’s market hawking their fresh Obst und Gemüse on the hunt for Beethoven’s birthplace.
Farmer’s Market in Bonn
Farmer’s Market in Bonn
Beethoven’s house itself can be toured and has his original piano plus some sheet music. Next door is a gift shop featuring every Beethoven CD imaginable, sheet music, and more. You can also purchase tickets to tour the home. Bonn is proud of their connection to the musician, who was born in the city and lived there through his teens.
Stop #1 on the Beethoven Walk
The city has a Beethoven Walk, a self-guided walking tour that takes you throughout the city to notable landmarks connected to Beethoven. We accidentally ended up on this walking tour when we found ourselves at these landmarks by coincidence. Beethoven’s house, the Poppelsdorf Electoral Palace, the cathedral, the old cemetery, and the Beethoven statue in the market square all ended up being part of the tour.
While the Rhine wasn’t part of the walking tour, I am sure Beethoven visited it—and probably even traveled on it—in his lifetime, so let’s just add that one in there just for fun.
Freude. Joy. Joie. Bonn.
It’s difficult to imagine that at one point people really thought Beethoven would lose popularity and be forgotten in time. With the changes this city has gone through, as a birthplace of music and modern democracy for Europe, Bonn grasps onto Beethoven and his legacy to make sure that this little city on the Rhine isn’t forgotten.
There’s a pretty well-known work of Beethoven’s: Symphony No. 9. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? There’s a little ditty tucked in there called “Ode to Joy.”
That song is Bonn.
It starts quiet, it draws you in, and before you know it the horns are full blast and the strings are going like crazy. It’s a crescendo of color and history and smells and vibrancy of people. Then you spin around, and the villagers are singing like you’ve stepped back in time.
It is Freude. Joy. Joie. The perfect slogan for Bonn.
Miles walked: 20.48🚶♀️
Kölsch consumed: 3🍻
Pastries eaten: 2🥐
Candies consumed: Too many.🤷♀️
What’s your favorite thing about traveling without an agenda? Where do you want me to go next?
When you go searching on the internet for useful information on Bielefeld, good luck finding real answers. Hop on any forum, thread or discussion board asking for things to do while visiting Bielefeld, or god forbid if you needed urgent information, don’t be surprised if all the answers say:
“Bielefeld? That place doesn’t exist.”
“I think I saw a sign for it once, but nothing was there.”
“I have never met anyone from Bielefeld.”
“Have you ever been to Bielefeld?”
“Bielefeld? You must be one of Them.”
Let me introduce you to the Bielefeld Conspiracy (and in turn, what Germans call humor).
It’s the longest running joke in Germany, and even the city of Bielefeld is in on it.
The Bielefeld Conspiracy could be considered the first meme, born on a forum in the early days of the Internet, when someone posted they were from Bielefeld and was told, “Das gibt’s doch gar nicht” which literally translated as “it doesn’t exist.” Since then, this idea of a city of 300,000 people not existing has become one of the biggest jokes in Germany, centered around an overblown, joke conspiracy of SIE (THEM), which asks three questions:
Do you know anyone from Bielefeld?
Have you ever been to Bielefeld?
Do you know anybody who has been to Bielefeld?
Some people go so far as to jokingly claim that They include Elvis, John F. Kennedy, the CIA, or aliens, who use Universität Bielefeld as their spaceship (I can see that, the building looks weird).
One of Them
What makes the Bielefeld Conspiracy so compelling is that overall, Bielefeld is not a well-known city even within Germany.
Bielefeld has a castle, but in terms of castles in Germany, it’s not particularly marvelous and awe-inspiring (sorry, Sparrenburg, I love you, but you’re not Disney-worthy). There are no major natural features like oceans, mountains, or rivers. Bielefeld is home to some major institutions, however. Universität Bielefeld, Dr. Oetker, Bethel, and um…. Ya that’s pretty much it. But let’s not forget our world class football team! DSC Arminia! Oh, what’s that? We haven’t won a game all season? 🤦♀️
“I had the impression that I was there,” Angela Merkel
But sometimes, it’s nice to have a reputation of not existing. You go in without any preconceived notions, without any expectations or opinions of a place you have yet to see for yourself. The idea of Bielefeld not existing has allowed for me to explore it and watch it form in front of me.
Existence is Overrated
It’s great to know that our 800+ year old castle doesn’t exist, with its underground tunnels and tower looking over the city. We’ll keep that secret to ourselves. The tourists can have the Black Forest; we have the Teutoburg Forest that snakes along the edge of Bielefeld, where the Germans held off Roman invaders centuries ago. We’re keeping Bethel a secret too, one of the finest institutions for special needs care and public health in Europe. Although, it becomes difficult to say Bielefeld doesn’t exist on game day, when Schüco Arena is sold out and the chants are loud enough to hear across the city. And even when Arminia loses (because it’s inevitable), fans in blue, white, and black walk home singing and chanting.
If this is what it means to not exist, I’m in.
But to all the Germans that joke “das gibt es nicht,” I must ask you one of the three questions:
Have you ever been to Bielefeld?
Because I think you might really like it.
Then again, I am one of them.
What do you think about the Bielefeld Conspiracy? What conspiracies or jokes does your country have? Do you think Germans could find a better way to help people interested in Bielefeld, or is it best that the city stays a mystery?
This past weekend, I had my first guest visit! Julie, a friend from Colorado, joined me in Bielefeld for the weekend, making a stop on her road trip across Europe. We got dinner in Bielefeld (Döner of course), and on Saturday, headed to Bad Salzuflen.
Salt Baths in the Woods
30 minutes east of Bielefeld is the bath town of Bad Salzuflen (Bad= bath; Salz= salt; Oflen=woods). The town was established in the middle ages over thermal salt pools found underground and harvested for their medicinal and market value, though it didn’t become a true “Bad” town until the early 1900s.
Walking through the city center you are instantly transported to the seaside, with the briny scent of saltwater in the air and the sound of the water dripping off the Gradierwerk. It’s kind of a silly juxtaposition for me since the only seaside towns I know are the overcrowded, modern, and kitschy ones of California. I felt like my body was in the Middle Ages, but my mind was in the US. The only thing missing was the smell of sunscreen.
What is a spa town?
Bad Salzuflen is a spa town (hence the “Bad” in its name). Like most spa towns, Bad Salzuflen has a geothermal source, in this case, salt. Typically, spa towns will have spa centers and health resorts centered around this source (i.e. Glenwood Springs, Colorado). People come to these spa towns for relaxation and rejuvenation. Breathing the air from salt springs in Bad Salzuflen is said to moisten the respiratory tract and help cleanse bacteria. The best part is you get to keep your clothes on.
With biking and walking trails, the Kurpark combines the best of German outdoor life with the salt spring. Running through the center of the park is the Salze river, and a large pond that smells like the sea. Get a gust a wind and you’ll feel the salty water mist your face. Throughout the park are cafes, theatres, and spas like the Kurhaus and VitaSol. But probably the biggest attraction are the Gradierwerk.
First built in 1767, the Gradierwerk, or Graduation Towers, act as a giant air filter for the town. These large walls meander through the city and make you feel like you’re walking between old ships. Filled with Blackthorn sticks, the Gradierwerk allows 600,000 liters (158,503 gallons) of salt water per day to trickle down the tower, creating a relaxing seaside climate for the town. Benches that line the towers are filled with people taking in the scent and sounds of the Gradierwerk, head facing the sun and bodies relaxed. Even on a cold day like Saturday, people bundled up (including us!) to experience the salt cure.
Julie and I had to experience one of the health spas in Bad Salzuflen, so during our visit, we went to the Salz Grotto located in the Kurgastzentrum. The Salt Grotto is basically what it sounds like. The walls are covered in salt rocks, the floor is a thick layer of Crystal Salt and Sea Salt, and mini Gradierwerk trickle salt water and produce sea air as if you’re lying on the beach. The only thing missing is the sun.
With our jackets on and covered in blankets (it was a brisk 60 degrees in there), we pushed our chairs back and started to relax, listening to the sounds of the water hitting the wood of the Gradierwerk, and the waves from the music. Within seconds, we were both fast asleep. After 45 minutes, we woke up and our Salt Grotto experience was over. I don’t think we were cured of anything by the salts, but we both had great naps!
From my limited experience in Germany, I have noticed the popularity of homeopathic treatments and natural medicine. Even when searching for a doctor it is common to find one that specializes in homeopathy and prescribes natural remedies. In Bad Salzuflen, it’s clear that the city and the people who visit believe in the healing powers of the salt water.
Are all my ailments gone? No.
Did I feel toxins being flushed from my system? No.
There’s a phenomenon often found in academia where people are flooded with thoughts of inadequacy, that their success is worthless, and that they are failures. In fact, a study shows that nearly 70% of Americans have suffered from what is called Impostor Phenomenon (or syndrome), which leaves them questioning their competence and writing off their own success as dumb luck.
I think if we were to repeat this study today, that percentage would be higher. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if nearly everyone has experienced some form of Impostor Syndrome in their lifetime. Moving abroad and living as “trailing spouse” to an academic, I can relate to feeling like an impostor.
I’m smarter in America
When I am speaking in English, it’s a simplified form. I am trying my best to minimize mistranslation and confusion. I haven’t truly been myself since I landed. Add the fact that I am taking a German course at a university I don’t work at or attend, in which all the students are either international PhD or employees of the university, it’s no wonder I have a complex. I feel like the dumbest person in the room, and it doesn’t help that I can’t even say that in German. And saying it in English doesn’t help because no one understands the nuance behind it.
I made a lot of changes to get here, sacrificed my career, quit a job I loved, and uprooted my family from a great community. I left a country and family that was mine for nearly 30 years. And we came here, to the unknown, where sure, people look like us, but they definitely don’t sound like us and they don’t act like us. But they expect us to act and sound like them. I left with confidence and after a month, I am pretty beat up.
Most of the time, I feel like I am surrounded by adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Sometimes, I can’t help but think that they are talking about me. Sometimes, they are, and I can’t do anything about it because I don’t know what they’re saying or how to respond. (this usually happens in the grocery checkout. Germans are very particular about grocery checkout, but that’s another story). I shut down. I spend my time in public inside of myself, avoiding others, avoiding conversation, avoiding anything German that could possibly lead me to make a mistake.
I know that I am a competent person. I know that I can do this, because I have done this before, just not on such a grand scale. But Impostor Syndrome likes to screw with you and tell you that you can’t. And being in a different country exacerbates these feelings.
I knew every shortcut and secret parking spot in every city I lived in. I had great patient relationships and loved working with my coworkers. I valued friendships and community. And now I am struggling to do the most basic tasks of emptying the trash or ordering a pastry. I am too afraid to go to the library. I must relearn basic skills in a new language. I promise, I’m smart in America!
Expat the Impostor
Impostor Syndrome is similar to anxiety, stress, and depression, as you can see from my account, in that it preys on inadequacy and fear of failure, but it is not considered a mental disorder. Often, you will find it in academics because of the high-stress environment. For expats, this is also true, since moving to a new country can increase stress and anxiety, and immerses you into an unfamiliar environment.
The impostor in you will say:
“I just got lucky.”
“I feel like a fake.”
“I must not fail.”
Do these sound familiar to you?
What about comparing yourself to others?
Not being able to accept a compliment or praise?
Not telling anyone about a promotion or award because you didn’t feel like you deserved it?
You can take the Impostor Syndrome test to see where you land. This test was created by Psychologist Pauline Rose Clance, whose research showed that both men and women suffered from Impostor Syndrome. Impostor syndrome can apply to anyone “who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes,” says psychologist Audrey Ervin in an interview with Time.
How to Unmask the Enemy
Now that we know what we’re dealing with, we need to be able to fight it. If Impostor Syndrome leaves us feeling like failures and frauds, we need to be able to recognize how false that is.
Acknowledge that you’re not yourself. Are you being you, or is this an impostor? Observe but don’t engage. Be mindful and objective.
Find ways to be more like you. Channel your inner American (or home country). I found the English section of the bookstore. It’s disorganized and a little outdated, but I can read the books. Do something that makes you happy or connects you to your roots.
Accept. A big thing as an expat is the feeling of never belonging anywhere. We are no longer Americans, and we are definitely not Germans. I am stuck in limbo between two states where no one will really accept me. I need to stop seeing that as a failure and start accepting it as my new reality.
Be brave. I think it’s okay to take your time to get acquainted to your new surroundings, especially when that means learning a new language. But often, I use not knowing enough German as my excuse to not do things and that’s not okay. My own lack of confidence is going to hinder my ability to integrate and immerse, make friends and connect. You need to be able to rip the band-aid off and do something out of your comfort zone, even if it’s a little thing.
Talk to someone. It is a truth universally acknowledged that people suck at talking to each other about how they feel. Especially Americans. In Germany, you don’t ask “how are you” unless you truly want to know the answer. In America, you don’t expect to get a real answer when you ask. Talk to someone, be honest, and seek help if you need it.
Encourage. When I lack confidence, or when I am depressed, I find that the best way to right my situation is to serve others. When I need encouragement, I often can find it if I actively take myself out of the equation and focus on others. Write a thank-you note, acknowledge something amazing a coworker did for you, help a neighbor. Do something to encourage another and you just might find yourself uplifted in the process.
Me vs. the World
It’s normal to experience doubt. It’s normal to think to yourself, “I can’t do this.” That’s called being a human. But withholding everyday activities out of fear of failure, not allowing yourself simple joys because you don’t think you’re “good enough” is not normal. The biggest thing I have learned since moving here and dealing with my own struggles with Impostor Syndrome is that everyone is trying to unmask their own impostor. While I am busy comparing myself to others, worrying that they are talking about me when they are probably not, I forget that those people are too busy dealing with their own problems to think about mine.
To put it nicely, most people are too busy thinking about themselves to worry about you. That narcissistic fact about the world has brought me some comfort. But it also reminds me to be a little bit more aware of what’s going on around me because most people aren’t.
Since I moved to Germany, I felt like I was always under attack. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know the rules or customs, and I got the side-eye every time I paid with a credit card. It was Me vs. Them and I was losing. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I know that I will have plenty of days where I will say “I can’t do this” or I will fail at something. But contrary to popular belief, I don’t have to be an expert in German within 2 months of living here (sorry Germans, I don’t). I will accept the fact that I don’t fit in here, and I will be brave. Yes, there will be plenty more scrapes and bruises to come, but at least I will have a story to tell.