Spring 2009. I can often be heard muttering the words bloody Unkräuter as I work my way slowly through the jungle of weeds that engulf our new home. These are not your normal weeds. These are a German version of the ground elder with a vast network of roots that seem to stretch the full length and breadth of our garden.
The man from Stadt Bonn who runs the garden waste collection service is becoming someone I know very well. Every Saturday between 2pm and 4pm, he brings his refuse lorry and parks it alongside the local cemetery, where these Unkräuter might one day send me! Many locals can be seen bringing their garden waste in wheelbarrows, wooden carts, stacker trolleys and bicycle trailers creating a real sense of community as everyone comes out to do the same thing at the same time. In contrast, I can often be seen making a mad dash to get rid of my garden rubbish before the 4pm deadline, using piles of black plastic sacks and the boot of my car!
The weeds were not my only challenge in those early days, as things often did not go my way. For example, week after week I visited vast DIY stores, and week after week I had to return – for my new wheelbarrow was missing its nuts & bolts, my new lawnmower had no electric cable, my new spade broke during its first battle with the Unkräuter, the kitchen units could not be assembled using my UK screwdrivers and the bed settee was no longer available in the colour we ordered. Each of these situations forced me to attempt to communicate in German and this provided a positive side to some of the frustration I was experiencing.
Learning was one of the most exciting aspects of living in another country, and boy was there a lot to learn. There were the obvious things such as the language, how to manage your tax, how to find the right schools for the kids and how to support them through a school system that was completely alien to us. But there were also the smaller things. You are not allowed to make a noise on Sundays or at lunch time on any other day. Try conforming to that with two teenagers! You are not allowed to hang your washing out to dry in the garden. Teenagers must be home by 10pm up until the age of sixteen, after which they must be home by midnight. You are not allowed to wash your car in the street. You are responsible for clearing the snow outside the front of your house. We were keen to fit in and properly integrate with the local neighbourhood, so these smaller things were very important to us.
Once I got used to all this, I began to appreciate the good quality of life you can enjoy here, especially the quiet Sundays where I don’t need an excuse to simply relax. However, there were times to begin with when I felt lost, none more so than when I was driving around. When I am in England, I know if I am driving towards Leeds, then I am heading north-east or if I am driving towards Bristol, then I am heading south-west. Here, I had nothing to give me any orientation except the satnav which only spoke to me in German. One day, to cheer ourselves up after all the stress and hassle of moving here, we decided to take the kids to the local theme park which is only thirty minutes away. Two hours after leaving home, we were still driving around in circles, close to tears and ready to give up on this daft idea of living abroad! And when you are lost and distracted, then you are vulnerable to the well-hidden and camouflaged speed cameras – small fines arrived through the post along with all the other correspondence that was incomprehensible to us without the translation services of our dear neighbours.
One day, I decided to pay my first ever visit to a German doctor in order to put my mind at ease about a few things, such as, well, going to the doctor! The doctor’s room was like one of those old-fashioned study rooms, with book cases that stretch from the floor to the ceiling and run all round the room leaving only small gaps for the window, sink and couch. The furniture and books belonged to a different age, and the smell of wood and leather was quite calming. I sat on a chair in front of his large oak desk and told him I was not feeling too well, perhaps as a result of my move to Germany. The next hour was like a school biology lesson, for this seasoned doctor gave me a thorough examination that included testing my reflexes, an ECG, a lung test, body to mass index test, blood pressure test and of course the more traditional examinations using stethoscopes, thermometers and so on. He drew lots of pictures to explain each outcome and regularly reached for his dictionary to provide an English translation. After more than an hour of trying to find something wrong with me, he took a blood sample and asked me to come back the following week for the results. When I returned, I was welcomed back into the surgery with a short rendition of the famous song Mrs. Robinson and more importantly, told that I was fine! I immediately felt better knowing this, and that I had a good doctor to call on should I need one. This gave me the confidence to go on and enjoy discovering this new country that I now consider home!
© Chris Robinson 2014. All rights reserved.