I met and married my German Karl while he was a graduate student in the United States. I then lived in Germany for 35 years and returned to the United States with him after his retirement. Family members and friends have prodded me for years to write of my not in the ordinary, full of true life and often hilarious experiences as an expatriate. And so with this blog I’d like to share with you the ordeal of balancing a tightrope of living two cultures simultaneously.
As I boarded the MS Berlin to sail for Germany in August, 1960, I had little idea what was on the other side of the ocean I’d had my geography, world history and humanities courses in college, but they were not preparatory for a young naive bride. And naive I was. with the idea love was everything, I would survive no matter what.
It was post war time when I arrived – evident everywhere. Bombed ruins among newly constructed buildings. There were foxholes yet in the fields. The male members of my husband’s family returned home as prisoners of war, grateful for even being alive, yet bitter over their experiences. And here, one of theirs married one of the enemies. The boisterous free-spending Americans were driving through towns in Cadillac convertibles. A dollar to Deutsch Mark exchange was 4.20. Opinionated minds thought all Americans ate TV dinners and canned food, were rich or had rich relatives, and were generally ignorant and lazy. Criticism and jealousy came from all directions.
My family back home was not all that supportive either. I was still their little girl. They saw me off with words like: Be a good ambassador. Those German housewives are going to show you a thing or two about housecleaning. Remember your American way of life.
And me? Homesick in the beginning, I was just glad to survive on that meager paycheck of my husband’s, learning to stretch money the German way after being used to T-bone steaks. Trying to learn and understand the German language, meanwhile thinking everyone was talking about me. In that little village, I was the town gossip. That is something to have to live up to. And then there were those cutting remarks from home. It was frustrating. I cried a lot secretly those first years.
I held myself together outwardly and became a fighter. In time I weaned myself away from the American way of life, becoming so Germanized I did not want to associate with Americans living there. I mastered the German language, keeping my charming accent. I wanted German citizenship thinking it would prove how much I had adjusted. My husband said, “No, don’t do it!” Then I was upset; today I’m grateful he restrained me.
It became a joke”Paint the kitchen and we’ll move.” Believe it or not, it only works when you do not want to relocate. The moves were great – they gave a a chance to assess all we’d accumulated since the last change of address, clean out debris and never allowed us to get stale. My husband kept his colleagues yet the family was forced to make the new friends and find other medical, shopping and entertainment resources. Over the years we have had more than twenty five different residences.
I thrived to be SUPERWOMAN – everything to perfection – the German stereotype of the three K’s (children, cuisine and church). It was hard work living up to others’expectations. In the end it was not so much letting them down, but the fear of disappointing myself.
It is not possible ever to say how things would have gone had I remained in the United States. the years in Germany were rich in ways I never would experienced in this country. I am proud of my American heritage and I truly represented my homeland well during the time abroad. Yet I like to think my personal inner growth is something I would have made in either place.
Everyone has experiences in a foreign country and whatever happens tends to form our attitudes about living there and its inhabitants. Some are good; some are bad. It’s our mental scale weighing each side that tips our emotional opinions. As we have our experiences, our scale is constantly changing. Not so noticeable in day to day events, but as time extends into years, we are able to reflect on the past and present with a certain neutrality,