5 June 2017

Michelle Mellon - Expat in Munich, Germany

Michelle Mellon - Expat in Munich, Germany

We’ve had the chance to talk to Michelle Mellon, 45, an American expat who has moved to Germany with her husband. Mrs. Mellon who has been living there for almost two years, now works as a writer. 

Read more about her experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?

A: I’m originally from the United States.


Q: What made you move out of the US?

A: Short answer: My husband got a job here. Long answer: My father was in the army through my school years, so I grew up moving every 2-3 years. Our family learned to make each new posting “home” as quickly as possible, so for me, it’s not so much the physical location as the people you have around you—your network, your community, your support system. Every time I travel somewhere, I wonder what it would be like to live there. So, I’ve always been open to living abroad if the opportunity arose. 


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: I’ve been living in Munich, Germany since April. Before that, my husband and I lived in Hamburg for 18 months. When my husband was looking for a new job in 2015, a couple of international options popped up. We talked about it and decided if either panned out, we’d take the leap and start over abroad. I attended preschool through 1st grade in Germany and had taken German in high school, so I was happy when he received that job offer.


Q: How long have you been living in Germany?

A: We’ve been living in Germany since late August 2015.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?

A: My husband had a difficult time in Hamburg. He worked long, stressful hours and consequently didn’t have time to explore the city like I did. The move ate up most of our savings, and the pressure of being the sole breadwinner overseas, especially with his uneasy job situation, made it difficult for him to enjoy the experience. The winter in Hamburg is long, the spring is cool with a lot of gray skies, and we were coming from California and dealing with SAD. In addition, my husband knew no German, so he relied on me not only to manage the household but schedule (and sometimes accompany him) to doctor appointments, etc. This was a stressor for me since my German is at a pretty basic level. I think our entry into the expat world was a big adjustment for both of us. 

The weather is better in Munich, and we’re closer to the mountains (my husband grew up near the Rockies in Alberta, Canada), so he’s adapting much better to live here. He still doesn’t speak German, but he’s less stressed about it, which eases some of the pressure off me.


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

A: I do miss having my friends and family closer. In the U.S., we still had to contend with West Coast v. East Coast, but the extra distance and time zone difference here has a bigger impact. Internet connectivity is not as easy here as it is in the U.S., so that was another issue—staying in touch regularly via email and/or Skype. That’s gotten much better, but it reemphasizes your solitude when you have to think and plan around those things. In the 20+ months, I’ve lived in Germany, one of my friends passed away, and two of my best friends were diagnosed with, and underwent treatment for, breast cancer. More than missing a particular place, I miss the regular connection with the people I love. Even though I’m a writer, I’m horrible at regular correspondence. Knowing that I started a blog to share my adventures with my family and friends, and I think that’s helped us feel more connected.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: I enjoy Germans immensely. I love their love of order, but also the fact that they can let loose at festivals, soccer matches, and nude beaches. I love their wry sense of humor—it matches my own. And though it is sometimes difficult to pierce that reserved demeanor (and a lot of people mistake that as Germans being mean or unfriendly), it’s great when you finally get through. 


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

A: It is not easy to befriend locals, especially if you’re not working. We are so used to the casual ease of California, that the social formality in Germany is tough. I think it’s easier if you’re working in a company with a lot of expats, where folks are used to quickly negotiating different styles and approaches both in business and in personal life. I’ll also be brutally honest: I’m “of an age” where I’m reluctant to invest the energy in making new friends. Aside from not being able to check in with my family and friends back home more regularly, it took several months in Hamburg before I felt lonely. I’m pretty independent, so I was having a ton of fun exploring but realized I didn’t really have folks with which to share the little daily triumphs and difficulties. Once I made an effort to put myself out there, most of my socializing were with expats from other countries. I met people through a group for spouses at my husband’s office, through the few German courses I took, and on sightseeing tours in the city. Before we moved to Munich, I researched Meetups and other groups, and suspect that most of the people I know here will be expats I meet through conversation hours and the local ultimate frisbee community.


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

A: Overall, living in Hamburg was about 40% less expensive than living in San Francisco. Munich seems to be around 30% less expensive overall than San Francisco. 

  • Q: How much is a cup of coffee?

A: No idea. I have never had a cup of coffee!

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

A: You can get a filling meal at an Imbiss (casual café that serves decent food fast) for €4 - 7

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

A: Our most expensive meal here to date was about €40 per person. This was at a Mongolian barbecue restaurant and did not include dessert. There are certainly high-end restaurants in Munich that would rival a San Francisco restaurant in price, but we tend to like to explore a bunch of different ethnic food restaurants, and that’s difficult to do that if you’re paying €100 per head and you’re on a budget. Thankfully we’ve found many good ethnic restaurants in the €15-20 per person range.

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

A: Wine varies a lot in price, but the great thing about Europe is that you can find a wide variety of decent brands for €3-5 per bottle.

I don’t smoke, but in the cigarette dispensers you can find on the street, a pack costs €6-8.


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

A: We were fortunate to have a relocation team in my husband’s company in Hamburg arrange an appointment for us with Commerzbank. Our representative spoke English and walked us through all the paperwork in about 20 minutes. They have a great online banking portal, and even though it was a little tedious to set up the security on our credit cards, I would highly recommend them. I think they are fairly experienced with doing business with expats.


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

A: Tedious. The list of documentation you need to provide is long, and everything must be as stated. For example, expat friends brought all their documents as listed, but had a photocopy of their wedding certificate and not a version with an original Apostille. Their request was denied until they could provide an appropriate certificate. When it came time to renew our residence visas after a year, instead of pulling up our information in the computer and updating as needed, we had to provide all the same documentation again.


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

A: Our healthcare experience to date has been nothing but positive. My husband suffers from chronic pain and found a specialist right away who has tried new therapies that seem to be helping. We have both had MRIs for pain/old injuries and done physical therapy. Not having to deal with copays, worry about preexisting conditions, or wonder what insurance will or won’t cover has been wonderful.  


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

A: We have insurance here in Germany—it’s mandatory for people employed here, and coverage is one of the requirements for a residency permit. We have done fine so far with the basic required insurance. That being said, I would advise anyone with a medical condition to research coverage for your specific needs. It may be that you need additional private insurance for some treatments. And the budget for dental; it’s not included.


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: Ugh. I devoted a couple of blog posts to this: getting our cats ready and their paperwork in order to ship them over here! Definitely a learning experience. 

The packing and loading were great. We used Crown. They are expensive, but nothing was damaged or missing when our stuff arrived. That, however, was the other memorable part of our move. Three days after our stuff was taken away, we got an email that there was a delay because of too much traffic in the Port of Oakland. That meant that instead of arriving a week or so after we arrived in Germany, our household goods didn’t arrive for six weeks. Made me glad I had packed a pan in my suitcase for the initial “short window” where we thought we’d alternate between home cooking and eating out!


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

A: My biggest challenge has been, and continues to be, what I want to do next, and how to get there. My language skills are not at the level where I can resume a job in the field of communications—even in an English-speaking environment, you need a certain level of German proficiency for that. Now that I am face-to-face with more global issues, e.g., the refugee crisis, I want to use my skills to make a difference on a larger scale. I’m still working out how to do that.


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

A: The positive for me is experiencing life outside of my American bubble. Just in casual conversation with Germans and expats from all over, I’ve learned so much about my own biases and ignorance of the world, and how others really view America. I also appreciate my good fortune in being able to explore and write about what I see and my experiences while living here. 

The only negative in my view is not being more integrated. If living here was an open-ended proposition, I would dive into more language classes and opportunities to become more proficient in German. But my husband has a one-year contract and we know the goal is to move on, so I’m in limbo with skills that are good enough for daily life but probably limit me in some more meaningful local experiences.


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

A: I have a long list of things to do in Hamburg. I saw some sights that locals had never heard of, and two were actually added to Trip Advisor after I wanted to review them but couldn’t find them on their site. 

I’m doing the same in Munich. I have a spreadsheet of attractions that I’m steadily working my way through. Both cities offer a lot of options for culture and outdoor enthusiasts, it just depends on your taste. In my first seven weeks in Munich, I’ve visited two crafts markets, two palaces, four churches, three museums, BMW World, Olympic Park, the Dachau concentration camp memorial site, and taken a day trip to Ulm and a long-weekend trip to Venice. 

I’m happy to provide specific recommendations based on someone’s interests!


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

A: With the current political and social situation in the U.S., we do not see ourselves moving back there anytime soon. Our goal with each of our moves has been to go “warmer.” We jumped back a bit in the move from California to Hamburg, but are hoping after a few more years here in Germany to move to Spain or somewhere with a similar climate.


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

A: For expats in any country, I recommend joining I Am a Triangle: http://iamatriangle.com/ There are times you’ll doubt yourself (particularly if you become a “trailing spouse” like I did). This group has been a great source of information and encouragement. As part of a survey they did about what you would say to someone contemplating moving abroad, I wrote: 

Do it. But go into it with eyes wide open. Research your destination and the opportunities to network with others in a similar situation. You will be lonely. You will get frustrated. Leave your romanticized or other preconceived notions about living abroad at the door. There are things that will be unexpectedly worse and things that will be unbelievably better than you imagined. Leave yourself open to embrace them all as part of your experience. You'll appreciate the person you grow into.


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

A: I have found www.toytowngermany.com/ and https://www.thelocal.de/ to be great sources of tips and news. In Hamburg, I wrote a blog about my life exploring the city (http://mpmellon.blogspot.de/ ), and I’ve started a similar blog about Munich (http://munichmellon.blogspot.de/). So, I’d have to vote for those.