Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Eternal Expat (Series 2, part 3) - the Expat at work

For the first part of this series, and the first chapter of part 2 click on these links: part 1part 2a, part 2b.

Finally, finally, finally, I have had a chance to continue my second series: the Eternal Expat. How fitting that I had a chance to start writing it yesterday, October third, and the official state holiday here celebrating the reunification of East and West Germany. 

Where did we leave off? The Expat student: a stranger in a strange land. This chapter is about me, the Eternal Expat, at work

Towards the end of my PhD, and after some deliberation, I concluded I wanted to try something new, and started looking at job options in France, Spain and Germany. Why these choices? I had set my heart on building aeroplanes in Europe, leaving the main sites of Airbus to pick from: Toulouse, Madrid and Hamburg. 

Bristol I already lived in at the time, and after having experienced being confused with a technician (someone asked me to fix their washing machine; they obviously weren't too attached to it) and seeing that this kind of confusion was reflected in the general respect given to, salary levels and demeanours of engineers, had decided to give it a go somewhere else. 

I felt experienced enough after spending two summers in Toulouse to want to try one of the other countries (not realising that doing a traineeship is completely different from doing a job, but I was young. What can I say?). It also didn't help that Hubby was not enamoured at living in France and Toulouse is a very, very small city. I am more a at-least-slightly-bigger-city gal. 

So, there remained Madrid and Hamburg. Madrid as a city, fascinating, as a working site, not so much. Spain's part of Airbus is very small and, at the time, focused completely on the horizontal tail plane, not something that took my fancy. My Spanish, also, it has to be said, not that great yet at the time. 

So, my Mom and I went off to Hamburg, she on another propaganda trip, me on a opportunity to see if I liked the city enough to go there even though I knew my parents wanted me to. Not that I was a rebellious teenager anymore, but these whims can take you whatever age you are, can't they? In fact we both enjoyed ourselves very much, and I found a city that reminded me, for some reason I still can't quite put my finger on, of Vienna, at least in its feel. 

Maybe it was the similar size of the two cities, or the fact that through either UN diplomats, or the shipping business they are more international than one might initially suspect, but I still can't quite pinpoint it. It helps that my Viennese accent seems to be quite popular here. Also, there is a small whimsical reminder of our time in the UK, as the architecture here, particularly around the Alster, the inner-city lake, is strongly influenced by the British colonial style. 

So, Hamburg it was, and I applied to several positions at Airbus. And after all that deliberating and visiting, where did I end up? Not in Hamburg, at least for work, but in Stade, a tiny little place minimum 40 minutes drive through farming land, behind the dike, which definitely had more similarities with a village than anywhere I had spent a significant amount of time before. Hmmmmppffff..... not only did I need to re-fresh, or lets say, re-learn my driving skills, I also had to get used to being one of 2-3 female Engineers on a site, with short hair, an Austrian, with a PhD, several years younger than any of my team-mates,.... you get the idea: I stuck out like a sore thumb. Even if I had not, there was nowhere to hide. Everyone knew everyone on this site. It was impossible to walk anywhere without being watched. My idea of a nightmare. Coming from a degree where being female was either not important or an advantage, to somewhere it made me even more conspicuous was a change I had not anticipated.

To make a long story short, after a year of commuting a minimum of an hour and a half each day on small windy roads, I found a job on the Hamburg site and moved there, much elated with the change. While working with my new team I discovered there were so many words in my vocabulary my German colleagues did not understand, that I ended up introducing the 'Ösi word of the week'. 'Separated by a common tongue' definitely applied here. Ösi is a German diminutive word for Austrians. My German boss was much surprised when she tried to tell me I did not need to let the others tease me, only to learn I had come up with the term. At the beginning of every week I put up an Austrian word and waited until the end of the week to translate it, delighting in finding ones I was sure they would not guess. I left that team more than 6 years ago and my then colleagues and now friends still talk about it fondly. Being different had yet again become an advantage for me. 

Now, after almost ten years working, in two countries, I have found being an expat at work particularly interesting. So many of my colleagues had been and are used to working in all German environments, that coming in with a different view on things, or just not having grown-up with the same basic assumptions of how things are or will be, can be at times very refreshing, interesting, and also a challenge, to myself and others.  

It's been eight years we are here now and I have learnt a lot. Not just about work (although I do hope the Germans continue to grow out of the remnant beliefs from the 1950s, which have left some believing work is only worthwhile when you are killing yourself over it and not enjoying yourself; what a shame), but about how tolerant and open Hamburgers are to foreigners, what a fascinating country of contrasts this is: between complete rejection close to anarchy to complete adherence to rules and regulations, between conservative dressing sense and innovative fashion, between strong capitalism to a working social state; also, how interesting it is to live in a country trying hard to deal openly with its medium-term history and struggling with the immediate consequences of its very recent history. 

I can't say we have learnt to particularly love the food, but lots of canteens do not help that, and you can get so many good cuisines here. If only the Indians from the UK would move here though! Aside from that, there has been so much more. We have laughed and loved here, have bought an apartment, and brought a beautiful baby boy into this world. We count amongst our friends Germans, French, Spanish, Portuguese.... we have truly arrived in our expat world


  1. I love your many witty asides and thought-provoking insights on Hamburg and life in Germany, Cary; my sincere thanks for sharing!

  2. My very great pleasure! Thank you for the lovely comment.