Recently my father-in-law sent me an article from the FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung). The author deals with the question of how one feels as a German (or foreigner in general) abroad. The text is about integration, German personality and how her identity has changed or rather strengthened during her time in London. Title: Why we felt foreign as a family abroad. Warum wir uns als Familie im Ausland fremd fühlten. (The article is only available in German and also behind a paywall which means only available to subscribers).
Among other things, it was about how she was able to develop a much better understanding of the situation of refugees and migrants in Germany, which is generally a good thing.
What struck me, however, was that even after 10 years in London, she did not feel integrated into English society. Her circle of friends consisted mainly of German expats (or other foreigners) and everything German was accorded a much higher value than she herself had done in her home country (German bread, music, etc.).
She sees one of the main reasons for this is in the language, which still holds one or two impasses for non-native speakers even after a considerable amount of time. She felt safer and more understood when she was in the German community.
She had – by her own admission – NO English friends.
This is the part that made me stumble when I read the text.
For me, integration into (a self-chosen) society – she had not been a refugee after all – is an essential part of feeling comfortable and being able to truly feel accepted. If you don’t integrate, you always remain an outsider and your stay – even if it is indefinite – remains emotionally „temporary“. You don’t fit in and you will not be able to grow roots.
But what does it take to integrate successfully into a foreign culture? I think the author is right when she identifies language as an important factor. But there is also the willingness to get to know the new culture in all its depth and a conscious decision to want to integrate at all.
Language is key. Thinking about this, I come back to this fact again and again. However, it is not absolutely necessary to communicate at a native level. A basic understanding and the ability to express what you want (albeit less elaborate than in your mother tongue) is enough to start off.
Language allows us to relate to other people.
I have been living in France for almost four years now and I can tell you, for me, French is not an easy language. I would argue that my starting point here has been much more difficult than that of the author of the FAZ article in London. Unfortunately, the ability to buy bread doesn’t earn you any friendships at first…
In the beginning, however, I usually sat silently when meeting (my husband’s) friends, straining to follow the conversations. Unfortunately, this is not so easy with basic language skills, as the spoken French differs considerably from that learned in German schools. It is teeming with abbreviations and colloquial terms. Due to the rapid speaking and contraction of words, it is hardly possible for beginners to keep individual terms apart. So, at the beginning, I could not think of building real friendships. How do you manage to be friends if you can only talk about basic things like the weather?
I deliberately refrained from switching to English. On the one hand, so as not to solidify my status as an outsider, and on the other, so that I could learn. That was, above all: exhausting. I am still far from perfect, but I have succeeded in reaching a certain level of fluidity.
I also discovered that it helps me, having role models. And I found mine in an Arte documentary from 2017 called: „An Evening with Romy Schneider“ Alice Schwarzer (a German journalist, publicist and feminist) comments on an interview she did with Romy Schneider in Cologne in 1976. Alice Schwarzer effortlessly completes large parts of the narrative sequences in French. In the interview itself, certain parts are in French even though the mother tongue for both is German. Although both speak with an audible accent, the whole thing radiates an enormous nonchalance (in terms of content, it is rather heavy, though…).
I will probably never completely get rid of my accent, either, but these two have definitely become my (linguistic) role models – this is my goal!
And so I’m working my way from milestone to milestone and eventually I’ll get there…
The second pillar of integration is socialisation. This is where it becomes more difficult, because we are socialised differently than our French neighbors. Those who grow up in the same country are basically raised with the same „typical“ beliefs and customs – usually without being aware of it. Education, books, TV programmes and the school system – everything connects us.
When we come to another country – whether as visitors or permanently – we see many things that are different at first glance. The language, the food, the architecture but also dissimilar behaviours. What we don’t see is the reason for these differences. With the so-called iceberg model, these become clear.
The iceberg model was originally created in a psychological context, but can also be used to explain other issues, as here in an intercultural context. Read more about the iceberg model and its origins here: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eisbergmodell
It quickly becomes obvious that the differences lie deeper. And it becomes even clearer where many misunderstandings might come from that may arise when dealing with people from a foreign culture. Many behaviours seem unnatural or even incomprehensible to us. Our learned everyday coping strategies no longer work properly. In order to overcome these differences, we have to become aware of their origins.
Everything that used to function automatically now requires reflection and rethinking.
This is exhausting, because all this has to be learned like a new language. Even if new ways of behaving never become second nature like your own, it does get easier with time. Just like riding a bike or driving a car. However, at some point you will stop thinking about it and automatically adapt.
I have thought about these phenomena a lot on a personal level and find that the mixture of two cultures can be an advantage. I learn new things, while becoming aware of my idiosyncrasies – that never hurts in case of doubt – and can thus pick the best of both worlds.
Finally, I think integrating into a foreign society is always a conscious decision. You have to want to do it. And that means extra work. In addition, you probably have to be willing to let go of the automatisms you brought with you from home and immerse yourself in the new world – at least to a certain point.
Having said that, it is important to remember that arrival and integration usually proceeds in waves. Tempers change over time and almost all emigrants have a period of stress at some point when they don’t feel particularly comfortable in their new surroundings. Welcome, culture shock! (It usually hits even those who have meticulously prepared, often even without being identified as culture shock.)
The phases are generally as follows: Shortly after the move there is a high phase. Everything is new, unfamiliar and exciting. This is called the honeymoon phase. Often this is followed by a low, the stress phase. Everything is exhausting, the mind adjusts and is tired. At some point, everyday life returns and with it, real integration can begin.
Common symptoms of this culture shock can be:
- Exhaustion, tiredness, increased need for sleep
- Physical stress symptoms
- Unusual eating behaviour
- Hypersensitivity, anger and resentment over small things
- Feeling of being overwhelmed
- Dislike of the people and their behaviour in the host country
You should not be intimidated by this. It usually helps if you recognise this phase as culture shock (which, admittedly, is not necessarily easy). If you follow the phase model, this step is followed by gradual adaptation. So the curve will go up again.
So, to all newcomers, it will (most likely) get better!
But what about the kale!?
Of course, every now and then we miss a cherished tradition or, as in my case, a certain dish that does not exist in French cuisine. After all, we didn’t hand in all our preferences and habits at the border. If homesickness arises, it can help to take time and prepare something familiar.
I love kale – a quintessentially German winter dish that is especially popular in the northern and western parts of Germany. In my family, we add cabanossi instead of the traditional pinkel or Mettwurst (I’m already looking forward to the shitstorm…;-)
In Germany, you can find kale pre-cooked in the frozen sections of most supermarkets – similar to spinach. That makes preparation quick and easy. There are even versions for the microwave.
Here, that does not exist. So, I do it from scratch. This means: finding kale – not necessarily available at all greengrocers – then cleaning, blanching and cooking. (I also had to find an adequate sausage, because Cabanossi are not that known.) All in all, the preparation takes about 4 hours! Never in my (former German) life would I have thought I would go to such lengths for a bit of kale!
I had to come to France (the country whose cuisine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site!!) to prepare kale like my grandma used to do… By the way, we’ve already had it 3 times this winter.
For those who are now homesick or hungry for German specialities: Kale in a jar, curd cheese and much more are available in 10.Arr. at the Tante Emma shop which I highly recommend for homesickness or special occasions
And here is the recipe (in German, but I recommend Deepl for translating it): How to cook Grünkohl
What I really meant to say
When you move to a foreign country you should be aware that there are cultural differences, that there are language barriers and that it is fundamentally not the same as a mere holiday trip. You have to allow certain habits to change (though that was no different when I moved from Frankfurt to Munich…). And if you really want to fit in, you have to embrace these changes. That doesn’t mean you have to like everything. But you should stay open and try to get involved with everything new. And of course you can combine everything with the familiar. (Before Christmas, we like to invite friends over for a typical German Advent afternoon with biscuits and coffee. Usually it tends to turn into a French aperitif in the course of the afternoon…).
I don’t believe that, as the FAZ article mentioned above suggests, the adoption of new habits and manners is displacing the old ones. I am much more of the opinion that new rituals enrich life and broaden horizons. One’s own socialisation does not simply disappear, but it integrates into the new life. We share our habits with friends. Everything blends together and this does not make me feel like a foreigner or the odd one out, but even helps me to become a part of this society.
By the way, two of my (integrational) highlights of 2020 were my son’s enrolment in the French maternelle and the first time I was allowed to vote in France – even if only in the local elections.
Of course, everyone is different. So why don’t you tell me what it was like for you or what you think about all this?