I would like to start off by expressing my appreciation and support for this project you have taken upon yourselves. All fingers crossed, and I hope you get to reap the success of your work.
Ok, so about me: I’m 22 and a law student at the university of Cologne, currently preparing for my final state exams. I have been living in Cologne, Germany (the exact city is of importance to the analysis, as you shall see below) for almost 4 years now, so I guess by now I should know a thing or two about living abroad and/or calling it home.
First of all, I believe that the term “home” is something very relative and very individual to each person. To some home is where the heart is, for others it’s where the WiFi connects automatically, so it all comes down to everyone’s own idea and subjective outlook. A lot of people moving abroad actually undertake this journey with the clear idea of it being temporary and their foreign land of residence not being bound to become their home. I myself for one have always felt the urge of moving forward, and am perfectly in the clear about the fact that I don’t plan on spending my entire life in Germany which is why my notion of a ‘home’ is much more fluid. To me, home is where you feel content with where you’re currently standing in life, with what you are doing, and with the people surrounding you. So yeah, basically make sure you’re clear about what it is you seek by moving abroad – this should help preserve you from disappointment or confusion.
About Germany: Germany is a vast land with a very interesting people and lots of regional differences. Obviously, this applies to almost every country, but Germany is one of the places where it is the most pronounced because of its history of never having developed as a centrified, single state (like France e.g.), but rather as several different regions coming together to form as a union. Then, of course, we also had the Iron Curtain and the Separation of East and West which made sure to create yet another cultural gap. So, it’s very hard for me to universally speak of life in Germany, as I have bore witness to these very same differences, and will therefore rather talk about my experiences with Cologne.
The Rhine-people, and particularly Colognians, are one of the most open-minded, fun-loving and internationally-oriented Germans in the country. With its proximity to Benelux and France, the city has always been a melting pot of different cultural and linguistical influences. It feels like this metropolis where everyone acts is if it were a small town or a village where everyone knows everyone, and everyone is ready to embrace you as long as you agree to partake in the specific lifestyle of “Kölsch”. It is also for this reason that Cologne boasts the largest student population Germany-wide, with the University of Cologne (UoC) having more students than any other university in the country (around 50 000). Young people just feel good here because the city offers almost all of the perks of a metropolitan city without making one feel to estranged or lost in the crowd, but rather cozy and well-accepted. This, of course, is no universal truth, but Cologne people are on general of the easiest to get along with in the entire land. I, myself, have never felt isolated or misunderstood, let alone looked down upon, but it’s also fair to say I put my fair share of effort into understanding the way people here think and occasionally taking part in activities which are popular or traditional around here. So it more or less revolves around the principle of (legal term incoming) “do ut des” – I’ll give, if you give”. It should be an effort on both sides. And with the huge student population and all the more kinds of different people in this colourful city, it shouldn’t be long until you’ve found the people you get along with best and frequently hang out with. I think this is the most important aspect of “feeling at home” – having some to go back to.
Of course, there are those persistent stereotypes about German people being cold, reserved and humourless, and like most stereotypes they consist of a small grain of generalised truth and whole lot of exaggeration and ignorance. One of the most popular notions is that Germans are hard to become friends with. This might be true to the extent of how you yourself define friendship. Because if you were raised somewhere southern or eastern, chances are you are used to making friends quite easily due to how outspoken and emotional everyone is where you come from. To be sure, on the flipside of the coin this also results in a lot of pseudo-friendships which could end just as quickly as they were forged. (This also applies to adults). I have seen and experienced this in my own native country of Bulgaria, so it’s safe to say I’m not just making some BS up. In Germany, as well as in other western and northern European countries, it’s just as easy to get acquainted with somebody and exchange the usual courtesies, but you can bet your pretty little head you will implicitly be made conscious to the fact that this does not amount to friendship by far. And this is not because German people are “colder” or “more reserved”, it’s just because they have a different upbringing and understanding of what friends are and should be. They believe a friend should make the effort to get to know you slowly and become your friend out of conscious decision, not just because you know the same people or go to the same bars. And a lot of people, especially from the East or the South, don’t have the habit or capability of investing that much time and psychological energy in this one single person for the sake of a friendship. But you can rest assured that if you manage to do so, your German friends will be one of the most loyal ones you have. Of course, as already mentioned, there are regional differences, and one is bound to struggle more to get along with Germans in Hamburg than in Cologne because of the Prussian ancestry they have up there – being less showing of emotion, more disciplined and reserved etc. But in the end, it all amounts to time and effort. And it’s up to everyone to decide how much they’re willing to spend of both, and on whom. Sure enough, Germans won’t expect you to make friends with them – their society runs pretty well on just mutual respect and common courtesy (which is quite enough for me, tbh), but you shouldn’t expect them to come to you and try being friends with you out of their own accord as well. Ergo – the sooner you decide what you want your closest circle to look like and what you look for in people, the better – then you will be able to integrate in some community, or create on. And if you’re polite and respectful of anyone outside of it, then you should have no trouble with making Germany your home.
Language. Even though Germans are becoming more and more adept in English, Germany is still one of the countries where you could face a genuine language barrier or at least some sort of isolation, if you don’t speak the local language. Unlike Dutch people, who basically grow up bilingual with English as their second mother tongue, or Belgians, who are used to being profient in several languages just to make a living, Germans have just recently been widening their scope of foreign language proficiency. Of course, they speak a decent level of English, and they’re more than happy to do so with foreigners who don’t speak German, but it tends to make them a bit more estranged and closed off, because of not being used or able to express all the things they normally would in their native language. Ergo, it pays off, if you also try and learn at least some German in your quest to calling Germany your home. This has all the more validity, if you intend on moving to a smaller town or village. (Also, don’t be frightened by the myriad of different German dialects and your inability to comprehend those. If you stick to “high German” (the official formal form of German), which is what you learn in school or in a language course, people here will always try and speak as correctly as possible as well in order for you to understand them). I’m generally a proponent of learning as many languages as possible because this is what really makes you connect with others. Everyone feels a little bit better, a little bit more secure and at ease, if someone talks to them in their native language, and for sure people who speak the language of their country of residence tend to integrate more quickly, and thus call the place their home.
On an end note, I could summarise the journey to calling a foreign land your home as follows: be aware of what you expect of the place, be aware of what you expect of yourself, be aware of the community you are plunging into and its customers, don’t let anyone intimidate you into completely giving up on your identity to accommodate to local culture, but also try and compromise to some extent with your own views of life and reach out to the others around you – after all, it is you coming to them, and not vice-versa. If you take some initiative and try understanding and communicating with your environment, it will pay you back in kind. Feeling at home or generally in one’s rightful place is something humans discover and re-define their entire lives. Contrary to what a lot of people may tell you or you yourself might believe – the feeling of home isn’t something bound to geographical notions or your passport, or folklore (though these take up a significant part of your identity). It’s about you and you alone – about where you are in harmony with yourself and with others.