A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #3: Andrew Couch of Grounded Traveler

Welcome to the third in my series of interviews with, ostensibly, expats. And by expats, I mean people who have been broadly defined as such by the fact that they are living somewhere else.

It’s not as simple as that though. A bazillion people over time have ended up living far from their homelands for an immeasurably vast number of reasons- immigrants, exiles, colonial settlers, nomads, conquerors and whatnot. It’s not an unusual or exceptional thing to do, when looked at from the wider context. It’s like broadly declaring everyone to be just mammals (*yawn* ‘they’re all the same, you know, with lungs and ovaries and nipples and live births and all that’) even though the elephant has had a very different life path from the whale. A monkey, as you may know by now, does not share my world view. We are not cats.

So far in this series (and so far in my email inbox, as yet unpublished) I’ve found a wonderfully diverse array of really interesting people who have, at least for now, chosen to live away from their homelands.  The two I have published so far, the lovely Nancy and Connie, both have itchy feet and a strong sense of wanting to keep moving even when they have settled down temporarily in a new home. I felt a sense of almost involuntary propulsion in their writing, which I can relate to.

Today’s interview is slightly different. I like different.

Kind people of the intarwebs, I’d like you to meet the honourable Mr Andrew Couch of Grounded Traveler.

I’ve been reading Andy’s blog for nearly a year now and I find it very…grounded. In a marvellously calming way.  He travels, he has a thing for new places, he still has the wanderlust,  but he’s, well, grounded in a way that I secretly yearn to be.  He owns a flat. In Germany.  He has a job that doesn’t seem to run on short term contracts. And in his blog, he honestly addresses the joys and the pitfalls of choosing to live a life away from your homeland, including addressing things that many of us aren’t quite ready to put out there: panic attacks, depression, fears, giant roving bands of wolves.  It’s not all gin fizzes on the verandah at sunset.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Grounded Traveler.

 

The Honorable Mr. Couch in Florence

Leaving

And the very scenic Freiburg Valley area

I am currently in Freiburg, Germany. It is a small city of about 200K people in southwest Germany. There is a university and several other smaller colleges in town so it is more cultural than the size would imply. We are 5 km from the Rhine and the French border and less than an hour train to Switzerland.

Freiburg sits at the base of a valley that is a major gateway into the Black Forest region and is known as the sunniest corner of Germany.

In classic German form this is a statistical measure of the number of hours (or days) of sun a year. And some locals will remind you when you mention that, that the title actually belongs to a small town nearby, not Freiburg.

I left the US because I needed a change. I had some years of work experience as a web developer (aka professional computer geek) and recently finished my masters degree (woohoo Master of International Studies) that I had been working on nights for a number of years. I had been suffering panic attacks on and off for a number of years, each time they went away when I went traveling. So I made a plan, saved the money, sold my car, quit the job and bought a boat ticket to Europe. Really with no plans other than I had liked traveling in Germany, so I would start there.

My travel bug started in high school. I had started taking German in lieu of band. I was only a mediocre student at it and was so shy that I didn’t speak much. I convinced my parents after two schoolyears of German to let me do a summer exchange to Germany. I spent two months in Hamburg and had a grand time. That began the cycle of work/travel that persists to today.

I knew more or less what I was getting myself into when I came to Germany. At the point that I decided to move abroad, I had traveled and studied in Germany a year total over several trips. I didn’t know where I would land or what kind of job I would end up with though. I had a list of places to try when Germany didn’t have a job for me. I had a job in 2 weeks from landing. It took longer to find an apartment. Original plan was for two years like I think a lot of expats start out with. I am now here 3 and a half years.

The biggest struggle was lugging my stuff around. I had a garment bag with suits in addition to my overfull backpack. Because I had a severe fear of flight, I took a cruise across the Atlantic. These are very fancy, so the suits were both for interview purposes in Europe as well as dinner on the ship. Since I lived in hotels for a while and moved back and forth some, it wasn’t a whole lot of fun lugging stuff around. Living in hotels was ok, but lonely. I was so happy to find a short term apartment to wait out my visa.

Because I had a purpose to find a job and resettle, I didn’t wander like I normally would when traveling. Looking back I wish I had taken more time to travel around, but I like routine and had the aforementioned baggage and plan. In the end I got job interviews in both Freiburg and Vienna, two of my favorite European cities and places that I had studied before. I chose Freiburg for the smaller atmosphere and because Germany had just put in a smoking ban that Austria still hasn’t gotten the grasp of.

Staying

I have been in Freiburg now around 3 and a half years. I don’t know how long I will live here at the moment, but I have strong attachments to it. I expect I will try to stay though the wanderlust does kick in hard sometimes. I have enough attachment that I will probably rubber band back here for the next stage of my life if I end up leaving at all. I have not given up travel, but I do like my new home. A great part about it is its location in the center of Europe. I’ve used this over the past few years to see places I had never thought I would get to.

I spent the first two years here living in a room in a shared apartment with 2 other students. It was a pretty normal sort of life.

The lovely Freiburg Cathedral

Home, friends, work, weekend, repeat. The apartment lease was 2 years, so it seemed perfect with my plan.

Then I had to make a decision to stay and put down roots or keep moving. At the time I finally felt connected to a place. This was something new that I didn’t feel so much at home in the US. So I made a conscious decision to buy an apartment and stay here for the foreseeable future.

In my mind it was a choice between starting over and building up social contacts again or living in a place that I found comfortable with friends that had become like family. I chose the later. I don’t regret this (most days).

Since that decision I have started blogging. This opened my eyes to what others had made of their lives. In some ways I was jealous of the nomad freedom, but I still like my warm house and routine (most days). I still really would like the freedom to move about and still rubber band back to Freiburg and that is still a goal in my life.

I speak fluent German. My job is mostly in German, which has provided practice enough to improve rapidly. I knew the language before I came here, but I have certainly improved since. The language aspect of life here still gets to me sometimes. A long stressful day after a sleepless night and I have no interest in hearing another word. Some days I just can’t speak it anymore, but I only rarely have problems understanding conversation.

My mental state has improved since I moved here. I was suffering regular panic attacks in the US. Here I have only had a few in a number of years. Life here just takes more energy. This somehow meant I was often either too tired or too engaged with things to have so many issues. As I have gotten comfortable living here, some of the stress and depression has returned in aspects of life. The respite from it and the things that I have learned have let me look at it in a new perspective that I hope will continue to help.

I certainly have days and times that I miss home and the comforts there. It would be nice sometimes to just veg out and watch useless TV in English. German TV takes too much effort to watch especially as it is mostly dubbed shows from the US or reality shows about parking cops or customs officials. It would be cool to be able to go wander the grocery store at 2am just because I can’t sleep.

Even though I still have some of the issues that I left the States to avoid, I at least know which are mine and which were situational. Not having to drive anymore and riding public transport or biking around has reduced my stress levels immensely. Simply knowing that I can move halfway around the world and rebuild my life has given me a strength I don’t think I had before.

As for external support, I have made some great friends here. The English speaking expat community is quite supportive within Freiburg. I went to an English speaking night on a whim and made a friend within 10 seconds who has become like family. She has lived here long enough to have solutions for a lot of the weirdest problems of living in Germany. This includes dealing with culture shock by laughing at it with beer or tea cup in hand.

My feelings about being here fluctuate daily. On average I feel better off here than I was before I moved. I feel more grounded and stable. Though I fight against the constraint of that stability some days. The expat life has all of the stresses of a normal life (work, traffic, laundry, groceries, giant roving bands of wolves) as well as being in a foreign place that adds additional stresses (language, culture, strange beauocracy rituals “I need to do what with the chicken to get my paper stamped?”) It is just like moving to anywhere else in your home country where you don’t know anyone, just more strange.

Maintaining stability

Ah, Santorini!

How do you know when dinner is ready? When it looks ready or you get hungry enough to eat it at whatever stage it is.

I have been here over 3 years, so I guess I have already been here “long term”. I learned about myself living with students again after being out of university for a while that I do enjoy having a home. A place where stuff works (“just hold the toast down until it cooks, the spring doesn’t work“) and I have enough space to have a private quiet space and a public one.

A lot of people settle for the wrong reasons. They are perhaps frightened to leave or feel bound to something or constrained by finances or just simply their own mind.

 

Some people pack up and leave for wrong reasons too. I probably fall in this later category.

Though I am convinced that moving abroad was the best decision I ever made. I have grown and changed a lot. I’ve seen some wondrous things I would not have otherwise. That said, I think I could have been able to be happy at home, but it may have been more difficult. Restarting a life elsewhere lets you watch old patterns reemerge, even if at that exact second you don’t do anything about it. This has been that kind of experience. I tend to run away from things, and now I want to see what happens if I just don’t.

I will be 33 this year. I finally feel like I have a home. This is a nice feeling. On the other hand, the eternal traveler lust is still a part of me. I am most happy either sitting in a pub with a good friend talking about all kinds of things or wandering a different city. So I need to somehow find the balance. I do think the balance is to be found abroad rather than back in the US though. I am still not great at it, but I have learned how to accept (some) things that I cannot change. I have gained a little amount of patience as well.

I still have doubts every so often. That line in your head that screams “What the hell? Why did we move here?” The doubts have helped me see what I want as well. If I doubt living here, I am always free to go elsewhere. I have shown once that I can, so doing it again is possible. So far each time I think about either going back home and what I could expect there or simply going somewhere else and what I would give up here, I choose to stay. There are enough good things about living here that I (mostly) feel supported to try to change the less than pleasant stuff. It rolls back and forth, but I am still here.

The Future

I bought an apartment here a year ago and I am working on renovating it. Freiburg has so many students that once I get it renovated if my wanderlust takes over for a short amount of time it will be easily fully rented until I decide to come back. That is task one.

My girlfriend will join my here sometime in the next year, so I am in some sense working on projects while I wait. She is from the US as well, so I will be able to support her in the expat leap. I have a goal in my head to have a location independent means of supporting us, but how long that will take to accomplish I don’t really know. I am a web programmer by trade, so even tinkering with the technical side of blogs is great fun. Also working on a book about the web for non-technical bloggers.  Once we are together we will see where the pathways lead us together. Travel will definitely be a part of that for both of us.

I only rarely regret deciding to put down roots here in Germany. Some days it sucks sure, but I am happy to not keep running away from things I didn’t like. That just leaves more energy to go travel and see things. I do like having a home to go back to though.


 

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.