The goal of this series is to showcase women who have made successful lives for themselves abroad and how they managed this, so we can inspire others to consider moving abroad, or help ones who have taken the leap, and are already here.
This weeks interview is with a fellow Hamburg expat, Caroline from Detroit, Michigan who has lived in Germany on and off for 8 years. She started a successful 'Escape Game' business called Big Break Hamburg. If you want to know how she started a business abroad, became fluent in German and battles the daily hardships of being an Expat, read on.
Why did you move abroad?
I initially moved to Germany to study abroad for a year in Freiburg. I began taking German classes Freshman year of High School and continued in college. My goal was to become fluent in the language and gather experience living in Europe. That study abroad program changed my life and is the reason I returned to Germany two further times after that. Once to work as an Au Pair in Munich and the second time after meeting my now fiance, I moved to Essen to build a relationship with him.
Is it hard to be an expat?
If there is anything I have learned after 8 years in Germany, it is that IT GETS EASIER. My first year abroad was quite a struggle. My language skills were extremely poor and I spent most of my time with other Americans. Therefore I found it quite difficult to integrate into German society. The culture was a huge adjustment for me. After several years of living here, however, you learn to understand and accept that what might be considered "strange" or "rude" in the US is simply common practice here and that it is ok to be different! I've definitely had to grow a thick skin and learn to not get upset at the simple stuff.
How do you find your first job abroad?
A great way to get your foot in the door is to work as an English teacher at a language school. That's how I was able to get my work visa to stay in Essen. Most schools are eager to hire native speakers and I was hired via Skype before I even landed in Germany. Being an English teacher was just a stepping stone to finding a more secure job and financial situation. As a second step, I recommend working for a company whose corporate language is English. Even at that time, after three years abroad, I did not feel comfortable doing business entirely in a German working environment. I, therefore, worked for the Swedish company Ericsson in Düsseldorf and gathered some very valuable work experience while maintaining my comfort level when it comes to language. I then, however, decided to become self-employed and open my own Escape Game. The bureaucracy was intense, to say the least, but I was able to acquire a visa to work in any business as well as to be self-employed.
Are you working in your field?
Yes, I studied hospitality business and Escape Games revolve entirely around the customer experience. The immersion into another world, ensuring a feeling of success and the logistics behind the scenes are integral to running a successful Room Escape Game. When I studied, however, this type of free time activity did not exist. Therefore much of it was a hands-on learning experience.
How do you start a business abroad/in Germany?
To start a business abroad you first need to ask yourself if you have what it takes to commit to your company's success. You really need to have the right mindset first and the understanding that you will be giving up a lot of the benefits that make living in Germany or another country so worthwhile. In Germany, for example, you will be paying the over 17% health insurance costs on your own. You will no longer have 30+ days vacation granted to you. And if you are planning on becoming a mother, you will not have the enormous benefits of maternity leave. These are all important factors to consider before opening a business abroad.
That being said, you're going to first need the correct "Aufenthaltstitel" or visa to open a business. You should look into what type of business you want to found i.e. GmbH, AG, OHG, KG etc. If you need a physical location, you should definitely get a real estate agent, as the costs have recently shifted to the renter. Also, if you have a location, you need to look into making a "Nutzungsänderung" i.e. registering the location as a certain type of business. German bureaucracy and rules can be difficult to manage so make sure you have all your ducks in a row before opening your doors.
How do you learn a language abroad?
As mentioned before, I began studying German in High School so I had a bit of a leg up before even entering the country. What helped me the most, however, is listening first. Although I spoke English with the children I cared for in Munich, they spoke German to each other so I was constantly surrounded by the language. I slowly trusted myself to make German friends and spending time with them solidified the speaking factor. I also recommend watching as much Germany TV as possible and taking notes of words or phrases you are unfamiliar with. You can really make useful and relevant vocabulary lists doing this. It is also of course very beneficial for me that my significant other is German. We speak a mix of both languages at home but he has played a major role in my fluency. If your partner is German and you only speak English, I recommend putting in the effort to make that change. Your German will improve drastically.
How do you make friends abroad and have a social life?
The internet is, of course, a fantastic tool for meeting people abroad. I have met Germans and Americans alike using tools like InterNations, Spontacts and of course Facebook. If you have the time, I also recommend getting a "Minijob" (you earn no more than 450 Euro a month). This is a great way to get to know a lot of people while earning a bit of money on the side.
How do you afford to travel abroad?
I do not travel much because my business does not allow me to be away for long periods of time. I do however manage to visit family at home in the US at least twice a year, usually in summer and at Christmas. I save throughout the year and usually purchase my tickets home on Swoodoo or Kayak up to 8 months in advance to get a good deal. As far as traveling within Europe, Ryanair is a great option for cheap travel. You have to be willing, however to travel to the airports that are not so centrally located.
Don't you miss your family and do you get homesick abroad?
I do definitely miss my family. I am however lucky to be very close with my fiance's family and have found acceptance and love from them that is incredibly valuable. When I get homesick, I try to think of the reasons why I'm here and all of the positive things Germany has to offer.
Are you happy here?
Eight years is a long time to live in another country and after such a long period of time, it really does start to feel like home. I think feeling at home plays a big part in happiness. I am lucky to have wonderful friends, a very special significant other and a thriving business. It can be tough without immediate family to support you but yes, I am happy here.
Caroline is another female expat success story I am happy to share. If you have a great expat story about moving abroad and making an awesome life, please contact me.