What is an expat?

*Warning: Long and possibly boring post ahead. I’ve tried to break it up with some pictures, but I will forgive you if you decided not to read…*

The question “What is an expat?” is something I’ve been thinking about recently. You may have noticed that nowhere in my “about me” do I refer to myself as an expat. English girl currently living in Germany, yes… but never using that word. The main reason is that, until this year, it had never even occurred to me to refer to myself in those terms. I basically moved abroad straight from university… my entire real (i.e. grown up) life has been spent outside of my birth country. And after moving around so much with the army, the question “Where are you from?” had always been a difficult one anyway. I’m here now, what does it matter where I was before? And for most of my time abroad, I’m not sure anybody else would have referred to me as an expat either…

Deutsches Eck
All the German state flags

I first came to Germany for a year abroad as part of my degree. Spending a year in a German-speaking country was a requirement to gain my Bachelor’s, and Karlsruhe was where I ended up. I had actually wanted to go to Austria, but we only had one place there and somebody else was quicker, so I got my second choice. During that year, I wasn’t even sure whether I would ever come back to Germany. And I certainly wasn’t experiencing anything like “real life”! As an exchange student, I spent most of the year partying, with the occasional trip thrown in there as well. Even lectures didn’t seem too much like hard work… apart from in German class, I didn’t have to do anything. My university only required us to attend a certain number of lectures, there was no requirement to take part in any assessments. (We did have to make a year abroad dossier to submit to our home university though).

A trip to Speyer during my year abroad
A trip to Speyer during my year abroad

Back in England, a few months before the end of final year, I realised I should probably start thinking about what I was going to do after graduation. Jan and I had been in a long-distance relationship for almost a year at that point (he was actually in America during my final year at university!) and I thought it might be nice to live near him again, so I started looking for opportunities in German. I came across an application form for British Council language assistantships and decided to apply. Then I saw the list of available countries and realised Austria was on there! Immediately, I changed my mind. Sod Germany! I had been dreaming about Austria for years. And Austria and Germany are at least neighbouring countries… nothing like the distance between England and the US! I applied, and managed to get an assistantship in Feldkirch. During that year (well, ten months… an academic year) I still wasn’t really an expat. To all the Austrians I met, I was just another graduate on a gap year. My time there was finite  and, while it would have been possible to extend the assistantship for one more year (two is the maximum they allow), it didn’t take me long to realise that I probably wasn’t going to. My boyfriend was in another country and, although I loved Austria, I had trouble making friends with the other language assistants and no idea how to go about meeting Austrians. I wasn’t supposed to socialise with the people in my classes (although some of the older ones were almost the same age as me!) and most of the teachers were as old as my parents! When it came to time for reapplications, I did, in fact, ask to extend my assistantship… but requested to switch countries. I chose Baden-Württemberg as my Bundesland and added a note saying I was familiar with Karlsruhe… and almost got my wish. I actually ended up at a school closer to Pforzheim, which meant nearly an hour’s tram journey there and back, but it was worth it to be with Jan again…

A snowy day in Feldkirch
A snowy day in Feldkirch

… and still I didn’t think of myself as an expat! I had no idea where my relationship was going or whether we could even survive actually being in the same country again after two years. Until almost the end of my assistantship, I hadn’t even thought about what to do next! Initially I had thought I might go in for a CELTA qualification, but when I ended up hating teaching at the school in Germany I was lost. In the end, I decided to go for a Master’s in translation. I was all set for a move back to England when I discovered two things. 1) A university in Bristol that was offering a Master’s in Translation via remote learning and 2) An internship in Germany that was actually paid! (Very, very rare). I applied for and managed to be accepted on both… so I now had a one-year internship and a three-year study programme ahead of me.

Once again, I had chosen something with a definite end date. At that point, I was also still living in a student residence (I was a student as well as an intern so it was allowed) and couldn’t have afforded anything else. It still all felt very temporary. During my internship, Jan finished university, started a PhD (which comes with a research position and pays a better wage than I get!) and decided to move out of the student residence. A that point, he didn’t want to get a flat with me… in fact, he chose to move in with someone he was only sort of friends with rather commit to us living together! I’m sure you can see why I wasn’t expecting to stay in Germany for too much longer…

As my internship drew to a close, Jan and I discussed what I should do next. For the first time, he actually expressed an interest in me staying in Germany, so I started looking for jobs. I managed to land one at a translation company close to Karlsruhe and, after a few months earning a proper wage, I moved into a little flat of my own… the very first time I’d had my own place! Jan still didn’t want to live with me, although he might as well have considering he spent more time at my place than at his! After ten months of work, I lost that job for financial reasons (the company had lost a lot of customers) and ended up on unemployment benefit (Hartz IV for anyone who is in Germany and knows about these things). At that point, I was seriously considering giving up and moving back to England… but for whatever reason I decided to give it one last try. That’s when I managed to get the job at my current company… and was immediately given a permanent contract.

The bed in my old flat
The bed in my old flat

Roughly six months later, Jan wanted to move out of his flat… and actually agreed that we could move in together! Initially he wanted to look for somewhere big enough for two that I could move in to later, but I was having none of it! There was no way I was moving in to his place. If we were going to live together, I wanted somewhere that would be both of ours from the start!

The sofa, just after we moved in... at that point it was the only item of furniture in the living room
The sofa, just after we moved in… at that point it was the only item of furniture in the living room

Which brings us to today… I’ve been in Germany for seven years, at the same company for four and living with my German boyfriend three and a half. My exchange student days are far behind me and , while I’m not sure whether I’ll stay in Karlsruhe permanently, my gap year days of trying to figure out what I want from life are behind me. Somehow, over the past seven years, I’ve gone from being English girl spending some time away from “real” life to something that, realistically, can only be defined with the term “expat”. I haven’t quite decided what I think of that yet…

Return to Feldkirch

Locator map of Vorarlberg in Austria.
Austria, with Vorarlberg in red (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may or may not know that after graduating from university I moved to Austria for 10 months. I had originally wanted to go to Innsbruck for my year abroad, but my uni only had one exchange place there and somebody else got it. I was left with my second choice… Karlsruhe. So when it came to deciding what to do with myself after graduation, I decided now was my chance to go to Austria. I applied for the position of English Language Assistant through the British Council, selecting Vorarlberg as my first choice Bundesland because it was the closest part of Austria to Baden-Württemberg (where Karlsruhe is) and, because almost nobody actually chooses to got to Vorarlberg, I got what I wanted!

I was assigned to two schools, with the main one – where I would work three times a week – in Feldkirch and a second one  in Götzis, a few train stops away. I decided to live in Feldkirch, partly because I was going to spending most of my working hours there but also because Götzis is a pretty small town, while Feldkirch is the second largest in Vorarlberg (which doesn’t mean much when you consider the size of most towns in Vorarlberg). That year was the start of my love affair with Austria. I had always wanted to go to Austria (thanks to the Chalet School books!) but I was never really in love with it until I actually lived there. Admittedly I didn’t always have the best time there – the other language assistants had a tendency to “forget” to invite me to things and I was lonely a lot of the time – but I never tired of the scenery. Even now, I miss looking out of my window and seeing mountains (climbing the hill with all my shopping not so much!). And if I ever see something Austrian on a menu I will always order it.

I hadn’t actually been back to Vorarlberg since finishing my assistantship, so when Jan and I were invited to a birthday celebration at a hut in Switzerland, close to the Austrian border, and Jan suggested leaving the day before (a public holiday in my part of Germany) to spend some time together first, it was obvious that I was going to want to see Feldkich again. Luckily, Jan agreed so we booked a room at the Best Western in town and he arranged for a car.

The view from our hotel room window
The view from our hotel room window

We arrived in Feldkirch at 3 pm, after driving a route that took us through most of Vorarlberg, and quickly checked in before heading out for a walk around while it was still light.  It was a dull, cloudy day but I took photos anyway. And I discovered that Feldkirch hasn’t changed very much – they now have a Müller, one of the book shops has gone and two of the bars we used to go to have closed down, but other than that everything looks the same.

After walking around for about an hour and a half, we’d basically seen everything – the main centre isn’t very big and there’s not much to see in the other parts of town. We had been driving for about four hours and hadn’t stopped for lunch, so we decided to go for some food. Rösslepark was exactly the same (except that it now has a smoking and non-smoking section). The beer is still good and I enjoyed me real Austrian Wienerschnitzel.  Jan chose the Schlachtteller – literally slaughter or butcher platter – which consisted of meat, meat and more meat! But not just any meat… it included things like liver sausage and blood sausage… and tongue! So I can now say I’ve tried beef tongue (of course I sampled some). It tastes a bit like beef, but has a weird texture and is slightly bitter. Not something I’m likely to eat again…

After eating, we went back out into the dark and had a walk up to the local castle – the Schattenburg. There’s a museum in there, which I’ve never been to, and a restuarant that is best known for its giant Schnitzel. I ate there once when I lived in Feldkirch and I can confirm that those things take up an entire plate! They come with chips (fries), which have to be served separately. Here’s the Schattenburg and some terrible night-time shots of Feldkirch from above – my camera doesn’t do too well in the dark!

The next morning, after checking out of the hotel, we drove over to Dornbirn – the second biggest town in Vorarlberg. A couple who had lived in Feldkirch when I lived there moved to Dornbirn three years ago so we went to visit them and their 11 week old son! It was lovely to see my friends again and the baby was very cute.

A little church in Dornbirn
A little church in Dornbirn

After a cup of tea, some baby hugs and a catch up, it was time to move on as we had another long drive ahead of us…
Check in soon to read about our further adventures over the long weekend!

Where do YOU want to be in X years time?

When I was discussing the signing of the new contract with my boss he asked me what my plans are, careerwise, for the next few years. “Well…,” I began, “I would like to stay here for another year at least, maybe two. Definitely finish my Master’s. Try to do increasingly complicated and technical translations and hopefully work on getting into a specialist subject. Beyond that I haven’t really thought about it.””OK,” he replied. “Fair enough. But you should think about it. Two years is not as long as you think, it will soon be here. Ms. K (colleague) has very definite plans for the future. She knows exactly where she wants to be in 2 years, in 5 years…”
My first thought was ‘You mean people actually do that?!’ By that I mean plan every step of their career, actually knowing where they want to be at various points in the future. I certainly don’t. Until about 18 months ago I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with my life. For a while I thought it might be cool to be a teacher, so I tried being a language assistant and, while it was sometimes enjoyable (especially in Austria where the kids were nice), most of them time I hated it. Plus by the end of the first year I had realised I was no good at it. English conversation and playing games I’m fine with, but actually teaching people stuff that they don’t already know? Hopeless doesn’t even begin to cover it. Translation on the other hand I am good at (finally I found something I can do! Yippee!) And it’s something I really enjoy as well. I love the feeling of satisfaction I get when I read through a translation I’ve done and realise that yes, it actually makes sense. I can definitely imagine being a translator for the rest of my life… well, the professional part of it anyway. But making specific goals?? Honestly, I wouldn’t even know where to start…

Then and now

I used to blog on msn spaces. This was a few years ago, before it changed to windows live spaces, stopped working properly on this computer and generally became incredibly annoying.
A while ago the boyfriend asked me what had happened to that blog. I told him it still exists, I just don’t use it any more. So he suggested I should think about backing it up before msn decide to get rid of it. Today in a fit of nothing better to do I remembered his suggestion and went to have a look at my old blog.
My original, very first msn blog from my final year at uni was deleted when I changed email address. The one that’s still out there starts about half way through my year in Austria and finishes with two one paragraph entry in October 2007, written after a break of 2 months.

And… oh my god, it’s terrible. The first few entries are all “boo hoo, my boyfriend lives in another country and nobody ever invites me to anything and I’m so lo-ooo-nee-lyy”. OK, there’s a few positive ones in between but that’s the gist of it. Then there’s the two months that I spent in England between finishing in Austria and moving to Germany. Mostly filled with getting drunk and talk of how annoying parents are. Then we get to my first year in Germany. Jan and I are now in the same country, so no more moaning about that. Instead we have “I don’t like the school I’m working at, they’re making me go with younger kids when I prefer older ones and I’m sure my mentor teacher hates me. Oh, and the other language assistants don’t like me either. Boo hoo, I’m sooo unpopular”. Reading through them all I could think was christ woman, did you do anything but whinge? Then my thoughts turned to this blog. And what have we here…

1. Bev complains about hardly seeing her boyfriend even though we’re actually in the same country now.
2. Bev complains about having to live in a student residence full of *gasp* students when all she really wants is a place of her own with actual space of for all her stuff, and how come the boyfriend gets to live in a flat anyway?
3. Bev complains about work and how she has no social skills whatsoever and just can’t please the bosses or get her head round the project management side of things. Boo hoo.
4. Once in a while Bev stops complaining about work and switches to talking about how she reeeally doesn’t want to do any studying either. More boo hoo.

Seriously people, something’s got to change!