My Whirlwind Year as an Expat
Contributing Author: Nicole Palazzo
Although I moved abroad from Chicago, USA to Freiburg, Germany in summertime, spring is the season that makes me reflect the most about my choice to live abroad.
Let’s time travel a bit, shall we?
Moving Abroad Timeline
March 2017. My graduation from graduate school was just around the corner, and I was torn. I was getting g a degree in Library Science, and I originally wanted to work in public libraries, but lately, I’d been wondering if I could have a bigger impact if I worked for the national professional association.
At the same time, I was two years into a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend, who lived in Germany. I’d always loved experiencing different cultures, and I was looking into moving away fromChicago anyway, so what difference did it make if I moved to Germany instead?
I applied widely to jobs in all three directions, thinking that I would decide based on which place offered me work. The decision would be made for me based on availability.
Instead, I ended up with job offers from each fork in the metaphorical road. The onus to decide had landed squarely back on me.
That March, I had to decide.
March 2018. I was on the job hunt again, but this time, in Germany. Despite having two strong job offers in Chicago for positions I would have thrived in, my decision the March before had been for the one-year, barely-paid glorified internship in Germany. I had viewed it as a trial year – for life in Germany, for learning a foreign language, for turning my long-distance relationship into a normal relationship.
Life, language, and love had all been good – challenging, but good – and I knew I wanted to stay. But how? Now I had a year’s worth of experience in Germany, sure, but it was at a position far below my qualification, and my German was still what I liked to call “under construction.”
Previously, I’d never had a job interview that didn’t turn into an offer, but now, I all my interviews turned into rejections, and I began to spiral. Was my previous success luck that had run dry? Was interviewing for jobs a skill I used to have but which didn’t translate to my life as a foreigner?
I felt doomed. I started to resent certain things aboutGerman culture. I lost sight of why I even wanted to live in this country in the first place. I questioned everything about my life choices.
My savings were running dry. My visa was expiring. Myself-confidence lay shattered on the floor.
Our apartment was in the basement of an old building that, that March, started to develop the first of three types of mold that would goon to affect my health over the coming months. The kitchen consisted of two hotplates and a mini fridge placed in the corner of a hallway. It was supposed to be a short-term solution, somewhere we’d tolerate for a couple months while we settled, but now, nearly a year into our lease, we couldn’t move, because I had no money and no hope.
I felt stuck in a trap of my own making.
March 2019. I’m sipping tea, listening to the rain patter on the roof of my new, non-moldy apartment. When I finish writing this, I’ll reward myself with the last chocolate chip cookie that I baked the other night in my oven, with brown sugar brought to me from America by one of my dearest family-friends, who visit me last month.
I baked the cookies for our housewarming party last weekend, when friends from all corners of the lives my boyfriend and I have built here came together to celebrate our move. We gave the event a light Harry Potter theme, asking people to come dressed in the color of their Hogwarts house.
This party, with its thrift store mugs and nerdy details, was me. Not American Me, not Expat Me, not Trying-To-Fit-In-In-Germany Me. Just me.
As our friends got to know one another, the conversation shopping from German to English and back again, I was overcome with appreciation.No part of what I saw when I looked around the room was a compromise. These people aren’t friends out of convenience or desperation. This apartment isn’t just fine for now. I love my friends. I love my apartment. Dare I say it? I love my life.
I work at a public library, in a managerial position appropriate for my experience, education, and ambition. Now that I speak German all day, every day, it’s ceased to be a problem and started to become a part of me. For the first time in years, I have income that exceeds my expenses.
I’m in a happy, healthy, loving, meaningful relationship –in several, actually: with my boyfriend, with my friends, and above all, with myself.
Life Abroad Lessons
Although things are good now, I’m keenly aware that life comes in waves, and life abroad comes in tsunamis. What’s gotten me through the bad times and what’s made the good times sparkle has been connecting with other expats. About a year into my expat journey, I started my podcast, The Expat Cast, to capture those conversations. In talking with other expats, especially those tied to the German-speaking world, I see how common our experiences all are, and I get to help create those magical moments where the right information lands on the right person on the right time. Those moments are what get me through my tough times, and I hope the same can be true for others, too.