10 October 2017

James Geren - Expat in Germany

James Geren - Expat in Germany

We’ve had the chance to talk to James Geren, 44, an American expat who has moved to Germany with his wife. Mr. Geren, who has been living there for four and a half years, now works as signage & metals estimator. He also writes the blog http://anamericaningermany.com/.

Read more about his experiences in the full interview below. 


Q: Where are you from originally?

A: I am originally from the US state of Vermont. My hometown of Chester has a human population of around 2,500. Cow population; 500,000. 


Q: What made you move out of the USA?

A: Simply put, love. Love for a German woman named Eve, love of the color green, and my love of not dying from exposure. You see, before Germany, Eve was living in a brown refrigerator called Colorado Springs, CO. I was living in a brown oven called Phoenix, AZ. I moved to CO because Eve and I fell in love, and because Phoenix melted. 

After visiting Germany for the first time in 2012, however, I immediately fell in love because it has just as many trees as Vermont and because it has a mild climate. Vermont is known not just as “the green mountain” state, but being just south of Canada, is known also as “the state of frozen tourists”. It saves the taxpayers a bundle on public art. The downside is that they have to wait until November for new exhibits to open. 


Q: Where are you living now?

A: I live in Bad Mergentheim, Germany which is my wife’s hometown. The area actually reminds me quite a lot of Vermont. It has rolling hills, lush valleys, and is very green. There are even cows, though thankfully not as many: incessant mooing isn’t exactly conducive to sleeping well. Luckily, we have a toddler that makes deafening cow-like noises at 3:00 AM. Combined with the smell of his diaper pail, I am magically transported back to my childhood every night. 

A quick PR plug about my town – that is not endorsed and will most likely horrify the civic leaders: Bad Mergentheim (MGH for short) is a lovely spa town in the Hohenlohe region known for its rehabilitation clinics and scenic vistas, as well as its mineral-rich “holistic” town water. The water in MGH was touted in the 1800’s as a cure-all for almost anything, which gave birth to its designation as a spa town. I don’t know about that, but the water does leave your coffee maker clogged after exactly three uses. The upside to this is that, due to the heavy water, we always win the town vs. town water balloon fights. It’s essentially like throwing rubber-encased mud-balls. Okay, these competitions don’t actually exist, at least not yet. I am working on a petition. 


Q: How does the cost of living in Germany compare to your home?

A: Overall, it is actually less expensive to live here, if you don’t mind the (slightly) higher taxes. Being a socially-democratic country, prices are regulated and so the basics are often cheaper than in the US. Gas is expensive, but only because oil lobbyists are almost non-existent here, and because German politicians don’t think climate change is “fake news”.

Q: How much is a cup of coffee?

  • A: No idea. I have a coffee maker, though it has stopped working for some reason. I now just sip hot water through a mouthful of coffee grounds.

Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

  • A: Even with the conversion, it is about the same as it is in the US. Possibly less as the normal tip here is 10%. Anything more and they know you are American. Or that you are terrible at math. In my case, it’s both.

Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

  • A: Being self-employed, I sadly wouldn’t know. Anything over €40.00 might as well be €4,000,000.00.

Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

  • A: I live in a wine-growing region and so one can buy a good bottle of wine for around €5.00. Great vintages from Italy or France, because we are so close, cost only around €10.00. Okay, I confess; I moved here for the cheap wine, though it was still for love…of cheap wine. 


Q: Was it easy making friends and meet people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in Germany? How did you manage to find a social circle there?  

A: Many of my friends are Eve’s friends that she had here before leaving, though the language barrier was a problem at first. German is nearly impossible for English speakers. I did make a few of my own English-speaking friends early on, however. For example, my friend and former neighbour Marc is German, though, with his Harley and ’65 Ford Mustang, he clearly wants to be American. He and I became friends after he invited me to an American-themed barbeque after he heard me cursing in English while picking up dog poop from my yard. 

I have another friend here, Debbie, who is from Texas. She and I became friends after she heard me trying (operative word) to speak German to the owner of a small dog, while my large dog was sizing hers up as a possible snack. 

The moral of this story? If you are an expat here, and unless you want to never speak your native language, get a dog. 


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?

A: I do miss family and friends, of course. To lessen the blow, I spend a lot of time on Facebook and on video calls with loved ones back in the US. Sometimes, when my homesickness is particularly acute, I ask strangers to both yell at me in traffic and cut my healthcare benefits. 


Q: How long have you been living in Germany?

A: At the time of this interview, I have been here for roughly four years and six months. Or, in Skype time, 234 video calls. I’d measure it in filled dog-poo bags but, because it’s so high, I think that number only exists as an unsolvable equation. 


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: They’re a bit whiny when they get hit with mud balloons, or when your dog tries to eat theirs. Otherwise, they are very nice. 


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in your host country?

A: I honestly can’t think of anything negative, and I’m not just sucking up (Hi, Ms. Merkel. You looked positively radiant during your last debate). Aside from the fact that I can’t watch live American baseball on TV as the games start here at around 1:00 AM, there isn’t really much I can complain about. The positives, however, are abundant. Did you know that Germany has actual castles? If you are a 10-year old (or a middle-aged history nerd from VT), you know that castles are cool. Having grown up with them, and since they are seemingly on every corner, most Germans take them for granted just as we take Starbucks for granted. I, however, am constantly in awe whenever I see one, much to the chagrin of my wife. 

Me: “Ooooo, look; a castle”!

Eve: Yes, we’ve been to that one before. One-hundred times. In fact, you were banned because you kept re-enacting battle scenes there”.

Me: “Ooooo, look; a castle”! 


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in Germany?

A: You’ll have to talk to my wife. I honestly have no idea how to go about that as she did it when we first moved here. I imagine that it can’t be that hard, though. After all, I was with her when she opened it, and they still gave her one, in spite of the chainmail I was wearing, and that I kept yelling, “DEFEND THE KING”!


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?

A: This I can relate to. Upon moving here, you need to apply for a visa. You will be easily be granted a three-month tourist visa. Unless you have a work visa, anything longer will require a more serious reason, like being a war refugee or the spouse of a German citizen. If you are unlucky in your marital choice, you may even be eligible for both.


Q: Would you say that healthcare in Germany is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?

A: It is definitely reliable, though you may have to wait several months for an ordinary check-up. More serious concerns, like the suspicion of cancer or, hypothetically, a caffeine-precipitated wound inflicted from sharpening your sword after sieving a kilo of coffee through your clenched teeth, will be addressed immediately.


Q: Did you secure a health insurance in the US or in Germany? What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?

A: I have German healthcare. As far as I know, and even if you are an employee of a foreign company, if you live in Germany, you must carry German health insurance. Not only does it ensure that the cost of healthcare remains reasonable for everybody, it keeps Americans from bleeding all over the place.


Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to Germany? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?

A: Having moved several times within the US, I was expecting half of our belongings to have been broken, and the other half lost. The company that we hired, however – a friend of Eve’s that has a company called Mühleck - did an amazing job. 

The most memorable experience was that we also brought our two large dogs with us. Getting through security was challenging enough. Trying to keep them from eagerly licking passersby – through their crates – was another. The most impressive, however, was finding out just how much a large dog can pee after having been in a crate for 10 hours. Until then, I had never seen class 3 rapids, let alone yellow ones, and in an airport parking lot.


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?

A: The language, hands down. Not only is German a language that has three genders for every noun (which changes every sentence’s structure), it delights in changing the structure in general by placing the time or day at the beginning, and by both putting verbs after the subject and at the end of a sentence. For example, In English, I would say, “I went to the dentist today. I did not have fun”. The literal German translation would be, “I am today to the dentist went. I have no fun made”. When translated into English, all Germans essentially sound like Yoda.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?

A: Have I mentioned the local water balloon fight?


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: No…and no.


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about Germany?

A: There is a website called Expatfinder.com. Brilliant stuff. Wait, that is who this interview is for? I had no idea. Have I mentioned how lovely you look today?


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?

A: I say this time and time again to recent expats; learn German. But, and this is the important part, then pretend like you haven’t. You will not only be able to feign ignorance when you are told “that particular part of the castle is off limits”, you will be able to share in my mirth of living in a 24/7 Star Wars convention. 

Use the force, you will.