From Tennessee to Germany: I Must Be Off!
Hey, BlogExpat! Thanks for asking me to do this interview. I’m Christopher Allen, the guy behind the mask on the expat, gluten-free, photo-literary, so-you’ll-know-where-my-hands-have-been travelogue I Must Be Off! I'm from Tennessee but moved to Germany with my dog, Bodie, in 1995.
1. Why did you move abroad?
In German “für die grosse Liebe”. I guess love takes a lot of people on wild goose chases around the world. The “big” love I found in 1995 lasted about six months, but I’ve been in my present relationship for almost 14 years now. And of course I love Munich and London, the two cities where I split my time. But is this why I moved abroad? I think the deeper reason I moved was that I wanted an adventure. Seventeen years later, I’m still not done with it.
2. How do you make a living?
I teach business English, and I’ve been working on a book to help potential teachers get a job (and keep it) abroad. When I first came to Germany, I was a teacher but not one of English as a Second/Foreign Language. The day I arrived, I let Bodie poop on the airport lawn and then drove to three interviews. Oddly, the first one went the best. The next two were incredible learning experiences and also hystercially embarrassing. I ended up outing myself as an übernovice. But, you know, that’s OK. We all have to find our way, smile through some blunders. I think being able to accept your own mistakes and your own learning curve makes one a better teacher.
I'm also a writer, which the readers of I Must Be Off! know already. In the last few years I’ve published mostly short stories and flash fiction. This summer I’ll be publishing a longer work, a satirical conversation between a guy who thinks he knows nothing and one who thinks he knows everything. I’m very excited about it. It’s going to piss a lot of people off. But that’s OK too. I hope readers will stop by I Must Be Off! in June and check out the book. I can’t mention the name yet. It’s crazy, but it’s a secret.
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
My parents haven’t figured out Skype yet. I call. It doesn’t cost much. My mother sends email updates of the family. My parents were devestated when I just up and left. They didn’t approve of my partner or my decision to move to Germany, but they would never have stopped me from having my adventure. I try to go back to the US at least twice a year.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Germany?
This is a hard question. I have a very active inner life. Sometimes it doesn’t matter where I am at all. The easy answer is “good German craftsmanship”; the long answer is a form of communication that suits me. Germans—many Germans—say what they think without worrying whether they are going to hurt your feelings. Yes, this is irritating. But I like it. Die Sachlichkeit dieses Landes gefällt mir.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Germany?
Goodness. Well, dealing with the “American” a lot of Germans and Europeans in general see in me. I’ve heard it all: Americans are naive, Americans are geographically retarded, Americans are fat, Americans have bad bread, Americans have awful coffee, Americans eat fast food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Americans are religious fanatics or porn stars and nothing in between. Americans don’t read. Americans can’t even spell the word kulchur! Americans are, above all, stupid and superficial. The first decade of this bombardment was difficult, but now I realise most of the people who express opinions like this don’t really know much about my country. They parrot things they’ve seen on TV, complain about their one week in the US when they couldn’t find anything to eat except fast food. They see lots of fat Americans but seem to overlook all the fat Germans. Obesity is a problem in the US, but it’s not exclusively an American problem. Obesity is a very personal problem, and we should never ridicule a person for it. I’m amazed when I hear—over and over—that Americans have no culture. I think an army of novelists, artists, musicians, essayists, dancers, chefs, historians and academics might object to this assessment. If you base your opinion of a country—any country—on a two-week holiday and a few talk shows, you’ll come up with a warped, yet sensational, view of the people and the land.
6. What do you miss most?
Of course spending time with my family and friends. Period. Wait. There is one more thing I miss: the salad bar at Ruby Tuesday. And Mexican food! Real Mexican food made by real Mexican people.
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
This is a sobering question. It’s one of those questions that I’d like to delete—but of course I’ll answer it. At first, I was friends with other English teachers at the language institute. Then I moved to London with my partner for a year, after which I moved back to Munich. Alone. My friends were mostly from the school, but none of them turned out to be long-term friend material; in fact, almost all of them turned out to be unpleasant people. After seventeen years, I have just two friends in Munich, whom I don’t see regularly enough. I’m usually in Munich only Tuesday through Thursday, and I work ten hours a day. My students are my friends. Some of them have been coming to my conversation courses for almost ten years. They are all pleasant people.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
This made me laugh. The difference between a draught and fresh air continues to boggle my tiny mind even after seventeen years. “Es zieht!” means “There’s a draught!” and you’ll hear usually an elderly woman say this when she feels air on her neck. You’ll also hear the same person complain about the “schlechte Luft” (bad air) when she comes into a room in which the windows have been closed. She’ll proceed to open all the windows and doors and sit there for ten minutes enjoying the fresh air. I don’t get it. A draught? Fresh air? Which is it? I have yet to figure out the difference. But it makes me smile, so it’s OK.
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
There are so many. I’ll skip the whole WW2 thing and just go straight to the “Germans have no sense of humor” myth. Of course Germans have a great sense of humor. Humor is such a language-specific thing. If you don’t speak German, you’d never know how funny Germans can be. I love Anke Engelke, Bully Herwig, Marcus Maria Profitlich, and lots of others.
10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
In terms of groceries, Munich is much less expensive than where I’m from. The quality is also better in Munich. In terms of property, Munich is much more expensive than where I’m from. I’ve lived in Germany for so long that I don’t really remember a difference happening in my life in this respect. When I left Nashville, the prices were much lower. In the last seventeen years it seems prices have risen at least 200% there.
11. What advice would you give other expats?
When you become a part of a country, you must try to appreciate the culture. You are the guest here. You don’t have to buy a Lederhos’n and learn to schuhplatteln, but a healthy respect for the culture of the country goes a long way.
12. When and why did you start your blog?
I started my blog in 2009 for several reasons. I’m an obsessive traveler, and I was starting to forget the places I’d been to (as my mother had warned all along). Then, a writer friend of mine kept urging me to create an online presence for myself. An author needs to have a website to inform readers about publications. Ecco: I Must Be Off! was born.
Chris's blog, I Must Be Off!
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It's occurred to me after reading my response to question 9 that "the whole WW2 thing" was a poor choice of words. I in no way meant to reduce the complexities of the war to a simple, flippant phrase. My comment was meant to suggest that the war and how Germans are perceived due to their history is too much to tackle in this question.Christopher 03 May 2012, 16:45
I'm of course a follower of Christopher's blog and am fascinated to learn that he loves Anke Engelkes. You are already 'one of us' dear Christopher.inka 16 May 2012, 14:39
Hey, Inka! Thank you for stopping. Hope you're doing well.Christopher 16 May 2012, 15:54