9 Questions About Living Elsewhere

1. Where did you live and for how long?
Karlsruhe, Germany first for 8 months then for 7 years

Cambridge, MA and Providence, RI for the past 5 years. I think New England counts as a 'foreign' country if you are from central Ohio, or at least I wish it were a different country.

2. What made you decide to go there?
Germany for love. New England also for love when my German husband decided to go to graduate school in the States. The German building economy has kept us here.

3. Did you have to lie to enter the country?
As an American you can stay in Germany for 3 months as a tourist. Since I lived close to the French border I would take little trips across, so technically I left and re-entered Germany, only they had taken down the border crossings about a year before.

4. Were you/are you legal? Plan on becoming so?
Once I decided to move back to Germany I began to apply to schools. I eventually studied half-heartedly at the University of Karlsruhe for four years. About three years into my stay I married a German and my student visa with permission to be employed between semesters was changed to a two year aufenthaltserlaubnis with the right to be employed, but not self-employed. It took another two years to receive a permanent aufenthaltserlaubnis with an unlimited work permit. At the time there was no central system or rules for regulating such things as visas. It was handled by the local police station. The positive side of this was I always went to the same person, sat in front of his desk, complemented his vacation souvenirs and got the maximum permit allowed by law. I also always took my German boyfriend/husband with me. I knew people from China, Canada and Turkey that had to go to the same guy and he made them come back every three to six months and would put them through the wringer. It was a very fickle system. Though after dealing with INS and my husband's green card I would take Herr W. any day.

5. How did you/do you make money? Did you go there with a job or have to find one?
Savings, the kindness of family and friends. Once I was there a while I sold my paintings and did translation work. I also painted apartments, furniture, and framed pictures. I never was able to get a 'real' job although my German is fluent. I applied for a couple of factory jobs but was told I was over qualified. And with 5 million unemployed, legal work can be hard to find in Germany. So I basically made tons of paintings and sculptures that barely made it out of my studio.

When I came back to the States in 1999 the tech boom was still going on in Cambridge and they were screaming for people. I took over supporting us by going to work for a multi-national company that publishes scientific journals. I started as an editorial assistant and after a year ended up supervising the other EAs and doing first line IT support for the entire office of 60. Ending up in that environment and doing that work was a big shock, but it helped my self-confidence. I know I can do different things given the opportunity. I had a baby in 2001 and between office and home I wasn't getting anytime for art. So in 2002 we moved to Providence, where the art community is more interesting than Boston/Cambridge and the cost of living more reasonable. I quit my office job and am back to the studio, life as a landlord, odd freelance jobs and saving on daycare expenses by raising my son myself.

6. Was housing easy/difficult?
Easy. I moved in with my boyfriend. The first two years we lived in one room under a roof. But it was very cheap. Eventually we moved into a bigger cheap apartment in a more interesting neighborhood. It was in the social hall for a church where my husband played organ and conducted the choir. After a while they gave me a couple of un-used rooms twice the size of the first apartment to use as my studio. In turn I gave them a little in the offering plate each year.

Moving back to the States was difficult. The cost of housing on the East Coast is horrendous. We stayed in Cambridge 3 years renting and decided to escape to Providence and buy a two family which at the time was still affordable.

7. Was the language a problem?
Yes, but only because I was hard on myself about learning it. You can get by in Germany only speaking English. But I thought it would be better in the long run to learn the language, only I hate speaking to strangers and I hate making mistakes. Now when I meet German speakers here in the States, or go back to Germany for a visit I just don't care and speak German however it comes out.

I had to learn Italian while studying Art History in Germany. That didn't bother me too much. But I drew the line when they told me if I wanted to complete my degree in Philosophy and Art History I would have to learn enough Latin to translate a text from Cicero into German.

Coming to the East Coast the only language issue I thought I would have is reviving my Spanish, or so I thought until a recent visit to my dentist who is from Fall River, MA. She remarked (without letting an r pass her lips) that her cousin who moved to Columbus,OH also started to speak with an accent like mine. And now my son in addition to English and German speaks Rhode Islandese (Mama pahk da caah).

8. Favorite things/worst things about the place?
I like that German society is less violent than American. I like that they are more environmentally conscience. I liked not owning a car, walking everywhere, taking the train for longer trips. I hated the pace of life. Everything in Germany moves so slow. And the everyday is constantly being interrupted by vacation time. We use to go to NYC one to two times a year to be reenergized, otherwise we felt as if we were asleep. It is a bit different in the bigger cities, but not that much.

Best thing about the East Coast is to know you are surrounded by like-minded individuals. I don't think I could ever live in the middle of the United States again.

9. Any good stories about it or advice for others following?
Don't stay where you are. Travel, move as much as you can.


- Robyn Thomas