The funny thing about being an expat means that people in your country of choice have false misconceptions about you, as do people back home. On a certain level, my life is exotic, in that this culture I am living in is, and will forever be at least to some extent, foreign to me and certainly foreign to my friends and family at home. Exotic things certainly have their attraction. Why else do people like accents so much or want to travel? And when things get rough, I walk around the pedestrian zone of the medieval city center, look at all the street cafes and think, yep I sure prefer this to automobiles and fast food. Because with little money, I can do something relatively good for myself. I can walk around outdoors, look at the shop windows and spend 3 Euros for a coffee and watch people.
Certainly in the states, one can do the exact same thing, but life without a car, not very feasible, and once you’ve bought that car you take it no matter the distance. There was a survey of how far people are willing to walk on a given day and the average for Americans was about half that of Europeans. Another thing, a few years back, I remember going to a cafe with an old friend visiting me for the day and the chairs were turned to look at the street not at each other and my friend got very upset that I was looking at people, not at her. Certainly I suppose it was bad manners, but I remember being so flabbergasted, like why would we even go to a cafe it not to watch people? I was literally speechless, I turned my chair towards her for the rest of the conversation and she was really a dear friend that I hadn’t seen in ages, but I still remember thinking to myself she didn’t understand European cafe culture whatsoever and I felt like I had to repress my European self to make her happy.
So yes there is something exotic about living here that changes you. I learn something new almost every day. I think that I know how things work, how things are pronounced etc and then suddenly find out I was mistaken or learn an extra detail. That’s the part of life abroad that I have to say makes things the most interesting. Even when it’s something stupid like one word, I just like being surprised on an everyday basis. When you are in your own culture you don’t actively think about the whys and hows, you just roll with it. If anything is surprising, I would say it barely registers, cause somehow you’ve unconsciously picked up on it. That’s what’s different about being an expat. Being fluent in a language does not mean you are fluent in the culture as well.
I don’t have a 6th sense when it comes to language and culture. I might say sentences that are grammatically correct. They might be using words and collocations that fit together but they might not be appropriate for the situation. Or I do everything culturally right, but because I am nervous my words don’t come together the way I like, and even though this can happen to native speakers in their own language too, I will get inordinate amounts of attention for my perceived “language incompetence”. I am proud to say when it comes to the genders of words in German, I am able to trust my gut. My brain has latched onto the gender of words unconsciously, but when my active brain tries to inflect it for case, that’s when it pops out wrong. Anyway the basics of cultural interactions I can even get right. Sometimes I even prefer the German preferences I know, for the weird dynamics of international interactions, where not knowing what to do and being so de-Americanized in my social habits that I feel completely at a loss and awkward.
But before you go assuming things are black and white here, I’m not saying I prefer German cultural norms either. Going to parties, with couples or alone, or going out grilling with all these weird rules about what you can share and what to bring on your own, or how everything has to be explicitly stated, which no one would dream of saying in an English speaking culture. All these things make me feel very very awkward too. But at least it is an awkwardness that I’ve come to expect and no longer feel obliged to “fix”. When I miss the openness the sharing, the friendliness, the “mi casa es su casa” concept, I go hang out with the Greeks here, and when the chaos and loudness is too much for me, I seek out my quiet orderly Germans spaces and friends.
So is my life exotic? Sure I mean there’s no way around it. Didn’t I just write about jumping in and out of cultures on a whim? I am an American living, what I guess isn’t an American life. Do I miss American culture? As the Germans say “jein” (Ja=yes, nein=no). Do I miss cars, the junk labeled food, everybody being told how best to market themselves? You know the answer. Do I miss being able to exist without thinking about the meaning behind my word choice and smiling at strangers, without being considered crazy/stupid or a creeper? Hell ya.
If I continue to live here I will never fit in, and that can be good and bad. Bad because when you are busy going about your life in a place you’ve been living in for 4 years, you don’t really have the patience or desire to stop what you are doing and discuss America, just cause someone notices your accent. While you can understand their curiosity, the problem is I don’t know who they are/if they are trying to pick me up/befriend me just because I am American/can help them with your English or are just genuinely being friendly and I’m too jaded to recognize it…. It is tiring being treated like a UFO, by strangers who you can’t take seriously enough to trust.
On the other hand it can be good too, because this culture isn’t my own and I’m ok with that. I won’t be lulled into a false sense of complacency and accept things at face value.
So now I’ll come to something that many of you don’t want to hear: the real work that my life here demands of me. If you would prefer me not to spoil your illusions about what living abroad means, I suggest you stop here. It mostly has to do with money and it ain’t pretty.
Let me put it this way before continuing: If you think you can survive abroad, ask yourself this question: are you willing and prepared to do everything twice? Are you willing to check up on every financial situation affecting you, to make sure people have done their job correctly? Are you willing to put in the legwork and time, so that things get sorted out so that you aren’t faced with fines and penalties from two countries? Are you prepared not to give up when paid government officials lie to you about what can and cannot be done? Are you prepared to call their bluff and be a bitch to get what you need? Are you prepared to tell government officials and accountants that even though you may look dumb and naive you know the rules and they are wrong? And not because you find these rules fascinating mind you, but because it is about your money and you have to know! Are you prepared for the possibility of bawling your eyes out in an accountant’s office because they lied to you about how much money you would save and now you have to take a chunk out of your savings cause you lived in apartment with no closed-off rooms so you can’t write off a home office? Are you prepared to harass your landlord to pay your down payment back, when he ignores the legal time limit he wrote in his own contract? Are you prepared to bitch out corporate loan drones on the phone when they try to make you feel bad for deferring your loan payments, like some irresponsible freeloader, then slowly explain that you don’t live in the country and their policies have left you with no other choice? Are you prepared to pay an extra hundred Euros for a visa extension, not once but three times, because even though YOU have done all that you feasibly can in a timely manner, they won’t be bothered about it cause they are going on vacation, and you can’t stay legally without one? Are you willing to spend over 1000 Euros every time you want to visit your family (and that’s cheap!)? Are you willing to listen to idiots telling you can’t be right, cause other people aren’t having problems, when you know the reason other people aren’t having problems is because they don’t speak any German and are completely ignorant or purposely choose to ignore things freelance taxes which will cost them thousands of Euros down the road, but only if they are caught?
Bear with me this story will get happier, but it isn’t done yet.
I do everything twice. Everything I think is done and dusted comes back to bite me in the ass. I’m so sick of it. I’ve been feeling so frustrated, so helpless. I quit my waitressing job, got a job at the Uni, it’s brilliant and it will continue to grow and channel me into new opportunities. But it’s not a lot of money. Then I find out the secretary misunderstood the timing of these two jobs and registered me in the false tax bracket, so I missed out of 80 Euros that I very much need right now. I emailed her to get it corrected, but she didn’t understand it, just directed me to get my envelopes with my pay slip. So the stupid tax office here even got my religion wrong, which I’m obligated to give to the tax office, otherwise, as is my case, they will collect taxes for the evangelical and catholic churches. I then had to go in person to the office and have them correct it all, pick up a new slip and deliver it back to her. The guy in the tax office was nice, but he also informed me that the money wrongly taxed from my 400 Euro paycheck I cannot get back until the end of the year. Bollocks. Oh yeah and that if I do the teaching job I was planning on, I will have to register myself as self-employed/freelance. But he also mentioned my work was obligated to cover my health insurance.
Well upset and still poor, I ask the secretary about more insurance, cue misunderstanding, cause of the damn accommodating Germans in the English department.(Since then I’ve made a point of switching to German). She sends a prompt email about talking to some woman about it. So off I go again, to another bureau to another bureaucrat, who tells me I am mistaken and there’s no insurance for students. I tell her the tax office said all these types of (400 Euro) jobs require the employer to insure their employees she goes off about something not on topic and I leave, upset because I never understand when the answer is no. I know that Germans don’t even understand what they are telling me. And I’m sick of listening to bullshit from people who haven’t heard me speak enough German to believe I can understand the complexities of their ridiculous laws. I am insured btw, it just would have saved me 40 Euros and taken some pressure off me this summer.
Next I write the woman who’d offered me a really great chance to teach 11 year olds for a summer academy to let her know that if I have work freelance I can’t take the job. Why you ask? Because working freelance is the most ridiculous complicated stupid thing you can do as a foreigner in Germany. Tons of people are doing it, and at least half of them are doing it wrong and most of those are doing it wrong on purpose.
If you work freelance and you are over your 3rd year, where you are still considered building your business, you had better be making shitloads of money or practically none at all. You cannot go to a regular accountant for 80 Euros to look at your receipts understand your situation and file some basic taxes. The tax account Germany has decided the self-employed are allowed to visit will charge you 500 Euros to do a taxes, even after agreeing on 100-200. These are basic taxes for around 20,000 or so of “profit” for your year. You cannot do what other freelancers do, and increase your profit margin etc, all you can do is work more hours and there is a natural limit to that. If you work as a paid employee, you cannot file those taxes separately with a cheap accountant but you have to file them with your self-employed earnings. Most importantly you cannot get any legal advice, and as you are technically considered a German business, potentially a rich one, you will most definitely need legal advice to cover all your tracks here.
My boyfriend and I joke all the time that I have been doing a three year training course to become an accountant. I have had to research and find out all tax and legal advice in a foreign language, many times from people who turned out not to be trustworthy. For the latter two years of my teaching all I wanted was for the freelance nightmare to end. So I wrote this woman and told her under no uncertain terms was I going to inflict this on the first year of my entire stay in Germany after waiting so long and shedding so many tears. And that there had to be some sort of solution as I was a student and it was just two weeks of summer courses. She responded kindly, but was ignorant about it and tried to tell me none of her other teachers have this problem.
The last point is the most frustrating. Many English speakers here in German teaching English do not pay any or all required taxes. This is a pretty ok method if you are planning on leaving Germany in the near future. Some are genuinely ignorant of how much they need to pay. Not speaking the language they miss out on some finer points. Even with speaking the language I overlooked taxes. There’s no how-to for freelance English teaching in Germany. Most people find out from their friends and acquaintances. Many people don’t want to find out. The problem is in Germany ignorance is not bliss. Unwissenheit schützt vor Strafe nicht, as the Germans say. In a culture where you are required to stay informed on your rights and obligations, not knowing means when they catch you, it’s your own fault. People ride in the ubahn without buying a ticket, but whenever they get caught, the whole train enjoys a moment of schadenfreude cause everyone knows the rules and when you flaunt them, you are bound to, and should get caught.
So do I know that most native speakers don’t know what’s up? Yeah, trust me I randomly saw an acquaintance today, asked her about her freelance gigs and taxes, and she proudly told me without hesitation that she has filed not one cent. Well put a fork in me and call me German then. Cause I am done. You shouldn’t be allowed to get work as a foreigner and flaunt tax laws. Fudging is one thing. But whatever the point is, what other people do is bullshit and none of my business. I am the one who gets to decide if I want to risk getting caught (I don’t! I’m a straight arrow), or if it’s too much money and stress and time for me to deal with.
I was a wreck this week. Didn’t want to get up, bawling, depressed ball of frustration. I will never get ahead financially, cause I hear about all these exceptions, but I am the one who never gets any breaks. I need the money and I wanted the course, but I was willing to stick to my guns. Because I knew it couldn’t be that difficult and I am sick of jumping blindly into a situation, just cause I need to earn money and then pay all the bills I could have avoided later.
For her part, the woman took my advice went to her accountant and found out that as a student I can earn a modest 2,400 a year before I have to register with the tax office. Accountants may be my biggest source of pain, but also my biggest source of clarity and guidance and I knew if there was an easier way they would know it.
I swear it was like finally seeing the sun after months and months of rain. It is exactly the money I need, when I have the time to earn it.
So that’s me right now. I am still fighting, but I am sick of fighting. I am pursuing my goals, but I am exhausted and distracted by having to do everything the hard way cause I am not European. I have edged out over this challenge, but who knows what will happen with the next. I am making my life here as secure as I can and I hope that once I get more established, things will get easier and more lucrative things will come.
I don’t know anyone who works as hard as I do for the little money I get, but whose struggles are met with such disbelief. It’s insulting and demeaning. But we Americans are all supposed to be spoiled and rich, right, so what do I expect? I pity the fool who underestimates me though. All of those people just light the fire under me to never let them be proven right and to stand up when ignorant people try to steamroll me into their misconceptions and misinformation, and trust my gut and my experience over hearsay.
Only the strong survive abroad and I haven’t been beaten just yet.