I’ve touched on the topic of adjustments you have to make when moving to and living in Germany before. Some of these adjustments are completely predictable, like the language barrier. I fully expected to have to learn German at some point after moving here, even though English is pretty prevalent. It’s taken a while, but I think I have finally made that adjustment. I’m confident in both my day-to-day interactions (well, most of them at least) and in an academic workplace.
I warn you, this is a rant post. It goes on for far too long, but I had to get this frustrating story out there to show you that it’s not always sunshine and roses (and beer).
Unknown Unknowns of Living in Germany
However, many of the adjustments I’ve made weren’t so predictable as having to learn German. For example, many of the ingredients I took for granted in stateside supermarkets just aren’t available here or are quite hard to find here. Living in Germany has forced me to make other adjustments, too, namely, the three things in the title of this post. You might be wondering what these three seemingly disconnected things have to do with each other. Well, they all represent differences between the States and Germany that I frustratingly had to adjust to one day.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in a rush preparing our apartment to host some guests from back home. We had procrastinated hanging a ceiling light in our living room since July. The “internet corner” with the modem and router had remained unorganized since move-in, too. As for the ranch dressing, I just so happened to be making Buffalo chicken salad that night. These three things all came to pass on one at-my-wits-end frustrating day.
I get that this may sound silly; “Ceiling Lights, Internet Cables, and Ranch Dressing” is an intentionally funny title (or an attempt at it). But I assure you, it wasn’t that funny when I spent a day scouring internet forums, Amazon reviews and Q&A’s, and running to multiple supermarkets to find something as simple as ranch dressing. I had not planned on spending so much time researching and looking for things that were basic to living in the States, but foreign here.
It’s normal in Germany to take the fixtures in your apartment with you when you move. Because of this, we were left with a couple of exposed wires for lights hanging from the ceiling. If you’re confused by people taking the wall/ceiling lights with them when they go, I understand. I was confused too, it was another “unknown unknown” to me before moving here. Also, you should know they often take the kitchen with them, too. I guess this is because it’s normal for people living in Germany to buy their own fixtures and their own kitchen (yes, cabinets, fridge, stove, everything). That’s why we had to deal with hanging a ceiling light or two. Thankfully, we bought the kitchen from the previous renter. I wouldn’t have enjoyed building a kitchen myself while trying to study for finals.
So, my experience with household jobs like this and work grew out of a cushy suburban life in a wood-frame drywall house. From kitchen demo to hanging ceiling fans and routing new cabling through the walls, I’ve done a variety of Home Depot-supported work. Again, all that housework was in a traditionally constructed suburban home. Wood frame, drywall walls, and importantly, a normal American electrical wiring system. Throw any knowledge of those three things out your awesome German window.
In order to hang a simple ceiling light in our living room, I had to learn a couple new tricks. I learned both the old and the new German/EU wiring systems, how to determine exactly what material the ceiling is, and how to properly drill holes and secure a fixture into it without tearing it apart.
Wiring the Light
I was a little frustrated after an afternoon scouring the web for information (in English) on wiring up ceiling lights in Germany. I had accrued an overfilled window of Chrome tabs on the subject. Sites like Toytown and Quora were helpful, but at the same time not so helpful. Some pages on the color-coding of wires contradicted other pages, and many pages I found discussed the unreliable usage of color codes or incorrectly labeled fusebox switches. With this in mind, I bought an audio phase tester, a tool that makes a sound when around electric current. With that, I could be sure which wire was which.
Fixing it to the Ceiling
By guesswork, drilling some test holes, and asking the building manager, I figured out that the building was something called “Ziegelbau” construction. Ziegelbau is very similar to brick except that the bricks are closer to hollow, lightweight concrete bricks than clay bricks. It also meant that the ceilings and floors were constructed out of the same materials as the walls, unlike brick houses. I had never drilled into Ziegelbau before, or even regular brick or concrete for that matter. On the advice of other Americans living in Germany, I went down to the hardware store to buy the appropriate drill bit for my under-powered battery-operated drill.
I should note that I get lost in Home Depots, wandering the shelves for something that I might just need. Now incorporate a different language into the mix, and you have a recipe for wasting an hour walking around. After finding the right drill bits, and the proper Dübel (screw anchor), I was able to start drilling but still not entirely sure if I had the right tools.
Do you see the frustration I started to feel? Scouring the web for hours without a definitive answer. Leaving a trip to the hardware store with more questions than answers. These are the things you can’t predict when moving to a new country. These are the adjustments to living in Germany that I didn’t expect.
This wasn’t a difference I expected. I was used to setting up a modem in the states after signing a contract with an ISP and forgetting about it until I moved again. The cable connecting the modem to the wall (in all my previous dwellings) was called a coaxial cable. Coax cables are also used for cable and satellite TV. Using them as wall-to-modem cables too was a totally normal idea for me. This, however, is apparently not the case in Germany.
I had built a cabinet to organize the “internet corner” replacing the Amazon box that had been holding the modem and router off the floor. Unfortunately, I couldn’t place the cabinet close enough to the wall because the internet wall plug was right behind it. To solve this, I looked for an L-shaped adapter or a new coax cable with an L-shaped end on Amazon. I thought this would take me 5 minutes, tops. I was wrong. Searching Amazon for “internet koaxial kabel” produced a few promising results. Unfortunately, each cable listed only SAT TV or TV for their intended purpose. In the Q&A sections of each item, people seemed to contradict each other. Reviewers and other buyers on Amazon either confirmed that the cable could carry internet signal or said that it couldn’t.
I spent about an hour or so switching between tabs and reading different reviews, trying to find a cable that I knew would work. The worst part was that I was fairly confident that it would work, no matter what other people said on Amazon. However, I was worried there was something different about German coaxial cables, and I would be wasting 8 euro on a cable. I ended up buying one I was pretty sure would work. Someone had given a pretty helpful answer to the exact question I had about the cable. Turns out they were right! The cable works just fine. All that frustration for nothing. Ugh.
Okay, so the previous two frustrations dealt with some more technical details of apartment living in Germany. This one, however, is another gastronomical frustration.
I have a confession to make. I love ranch dressing. Just as easily as others would dip wings in ranch, I will dip pizza in ranch. I’m not proud of this, but I accept it as part of my life and a necessary ingredient to my happiness. In this case, I had a more valid reason for wanting/needing ranch dressing. I was making Buffalo chicken salad – I believe that requires either a good ranch or blue cheese dressing or a combination of the two. Unfortunately, it seems that the entire city of Munich is completely oblivious to this wonderful nectar of the gods.
I walked to and thoroughly through three different supermarkets in my area, and I found nothing. No Hidden Valley, no Newman’s Own even. It was impossible find ranch. Even at the Galeria Kaufhof near Marienplatz – a rather large and usually more international supermarket than your typical Lidl or Tengelmann – THERE WAS NO RANCH. I took a look around there a few days ago out of curiosity and only came back with this sad, somewhat ranch-ish dressing as a stand in.
Luckily, I found a great recipe from Chef John over at foodwishes.com, and learned to make it myself and now have amazingly delicious ranch dressing whenever I want. If you want the recipe, check out the blog post here or watch the video below!
Ironically, I also couldn’t find the proper hot sauce for buffalo-style anything, Frank’s Hot Sauce, anywhere I looked. My only choice for hot sauce in the three supermarkets around me was Tabasco. C’est le vie.
Uprooted and Out of My Element
So I uprooted myself from the States, okay, I get that. And a day of frustration isn’t really all that bad, right? Right. On top of that, a lack of ranch dressing is just about the whitest first world problem I’ve ever heard. That doesn’t make it any less of a terrible surprise when I expect something to work or be the way it was back home and it doesn’t or isn’t here. Realizing that sucks. Then, realizing that you have roughly the same accumulated cultural knowledge about your newly adopted country as a kindergartner would really sucks from time to time.
As I said at the beginning of this 1,400+ word rant, there are things you expect to change when you move to another country. However, if you read this whole thing, I hope I’ve been able to change the shade of those rose-colored glasses a little bit. I’m just trying to open your eyes to the idea that it’s not going to be a walk in the park.
It’s Common Knowledge
There are going to be things that you never imagined having to deal with. There are going to be things that you took for granted back home. I’ve formed a theory about these “unknown unknowns” and why they are or seem unknown to us before moving. I think that we develop a sort of cultural knowledge, or set of common cultural norms, as we go through life. It’s a sort of base-level of things you need to know and learn simply by living. For example, my girlfriend revealed a part of the German cultural knowledge to me the other day.
Recycling bottles is a special thing here. Each type of bottle has its own place in which it can be recycled and returned for the Pfand (bottle deposit) back. I knew that I could take the beer bottles down to the liquor store under our apartment and that I could take some plastic bottles to the supermarket down the street for the Pfand back. There was one simple, crucial bit of information that I hadn’t realized. This little tidbit would have helped me always know exactly where to return bottles. Simply, if you can buy the bottle there, the store has to be able to recycle it and give you the Pfand back. Of course. It seems so simple, and when she told me it seemed so obvious.
So – to finally conclude this way over-explained post. You can’t and won’t expect all the changes to your life, adjustments you’ll have to make, and differences you’ll need to adapt to in your new country. Just know that there will be frustrating days when you just want things to be like they were back home. Stop. Breathe. Drink a beer. Just relax at the end of those days and chalk it up to life experience. You’ll get through it, and know that making these difficult adjustments will make you a more flexible and resilient person.