Yes, I’m crossing the English Channel and going to live ‘abroad’.
The title of this post, “Auntie Helen flees to the continent”, is a quote from the minister of my church who explained to a church meeting why I couldn’t organise our event in the Essex Book Festival as I had for the previous five years. Because Helen is “fleeing to the continent”. I rather liked the sound of that and it has become my mental image of my year in Germany.
So what’s the plan? I’ve mentioned it a lot in blog posts over the last couple of years, partly because I have taken lots of holidays to bits of Germany to find the right place for me to choose for my year. These holidays included Düsseldorf (too busy for me), Nettetal (very nice, maybe a bit too quiet), Koblenz (too far away), Mönchengladbach (a bit too grey and large) and finally success when I visited Kempen. It helps that Kempen is in ideal cycling territory too – also ideal for a velomobile.
I’ve wanted to have a ‘year in Germany’ for about eleven years now, ever since I started learning German again (I did O-level back in 1986). Lots of friends had a gap year between finishing sixth form college and going to University but I didn’t. I got married straight out of University and went to work after a brief gap after I had an operation on my arm. But the little nagging feeling that I’d like to experience living in another country grew and grew.
In 2007 my husband, then dog Lucy (a Weimaraner) and I went to Berlin (well, Falkensee, just outside Spandau) for five weeks to see if that would cure me of my need to live in Germany. I had a great time, doing a Goethe Institut German course and enjoying living in Berlin, but it certainly didn’t scratch the itch properly to live in Germany. So ever since I have been thinking more about it and eventually decided to go ahead.
My husband is staying back in the UK where he works, although he will also take a couple of months off to sail with a friend round the British Isles in the summer. So it’ll just be me and Poppy the cockapoo going to Kempen for the year (or more, if I really like it!)
Preparations have been in hand for years really, including me learning more German at Essex University and various other things, but now my leaving date is approaching I have started making really serious arrangements.
25 Preparations for life in Germany.
1. Rental contract
I signed a for my accommodation in the hamlet of Escheln, outside Sankt Hubert/Kempen. I did this in March 2013 when visiting.
It was an interesting challenge to read all the small print in a foreign language and check everything was OK (it was).
2. Travel Planning
I booked ferry tickets not only for my trip out to Kempen on 31 March but also for return trips to the UK for work in mid-June and mid-September. I will have a week back in the UK then which includes two days in Eastbourne for work. I will also come back for a week or more in December for work/pre-Christmas stuff.
3. Legal/administrative preparation.
I’ve had the book “Living and Working in Germany” for several years now and have of course read it.
I’ve actually found the ToyTown Forum (for English-speaking expats in Germany) more useful as people can give much more detail but the book gives a useful overview.
I have a list of things that I need to do when I arrive, such as registering in the local area (in Germany you have to register where you live), and various things to do with my Income Tax card, Dog Tax etc.
4. Health Insurance.
In Germany Health Insurance is mandatory, whether it’s private or public (you have to pay for both).
There was a possibility that I would be covered by the NHS because of my status as a Freelancer using the A1 Form but unfortunately I didn’t quite qualify for this so have had to take out health insurance for Germany. Fortunately it’s not too expensive – and is of course vital! John Gunn of John Gunn & Partner has been brilliantly helpful with this – he lives in Hamburg in Germany but comes from Southend (as do I!)
5. Haftpflichtversicherung – public liability insurance.
This is very important in Germany, much more so than the UK, and as it’s pretty cheap it’s definitely worth taking it out. I will also get an add-on for the dog in case she causes any problems.
6. Tax advice
Terribly dull, this, but incorrect payment of taxes in Germany is a criminal rather than civil offence and I needed to be sure that I get everything right as my situation (not earning any money in Germany whilst living there but continuing to earn an income in the UK) is a little unusual.
I’ve been in touch with Expattax, a firm who deal with taxes for Expats in Germany and I’m all set to do a German tax return at the end of 2015 (well, they’ll do it for me, but I know what I need to put on my invoices etc). The likelihood is that I won’t actually have to pay any tax as I’ll be under the threshold but it is good to know that a company who know what they are doing will sort me out!
7. German bank account
Way back in 2007 I opened a bank account with Deutsche Bank. It’s difficult to open an account in Germany if you don’t have a German residential address (which I didn’t) and only a few banks would do this, Deutsche Bank being one. However they only let me have a cashpoint card which I can’t use for transactions in supermarkets etc – only for getting money out of the hole in the wall. They also charge me 15€ per quarter for the privilege.
Once I get to Germany and register there (so have an official German address) I will open another account with a different bank that will allow me a visa debit or EC card. I’ve been doing some research and there are a couple of good options.
8. Currency transfers.
Yes, I need money in Euros and a fair bit of it to pay my rent. I have been watching the Pound:Euro rate for well over six months and when it improved reasonably (£1 = 1.22€) I did some currency transfers through Worldwide Currencies who were absolutely excellent. Very efficient, good rates, instant service.
9. Poppy’s Passport
Poppy the dog has already travelled to Germany with me three times but obviously I needed to make sure all was in order with her Passport (it is).
I have had a nametag made for her with our address in Kempen and my German mobile phone number – on a rather attractive Union Jack tag!
10. Winter tyres.
We don’t usually use these in the UK but in Germany it is illegal to drive if there is snow or ice on the ground unless you have winter tyres. As I will have my car there for some of the winter we thought it sensible to get the tyres. There were two pairs of decent part-worn winter tyres (Continental and Pirelli) at the local tyre shop so we bought them!
11. Get another car.
As I would be taking our car to Germany we needed to get a second one for James to use. Also the law requires a UK car to be registered in Germany if it is there for more than six months in a year. Likewise our car insurance only allows a car to be in Europe for 180 days in a year. The simple answer is to have two cars (which we usually do) and swap them round periodically. So we did a bit of research into a smaller, more economical car and went off to buy a nice blue Honda Jazz with one elderly careful owner.
The Jazz will be my ‘summer car’, the Audi A6 estate with the winter tyres the ‘winter car’. Although I’m not expecting to use them much at all whilst in Germany – I have my three-wheeled transport options for that!
12. Bike for bad weather
I won’t be using the car that much, probably. I’d much prefer to cycle. But if it’s raining/cold/windy? Well then, time to get a Velomobile! So I have!
13. Electrical adapters
James very kindly adapted some extension leads for me so I don’t need to change all the plugs on my electronics or use adapters.
14. Vital supplies
I also needed to stock up on my teabags. German tea just doesn’t do it for me, so I got myself a few boxes of Tetley Easy Squeeze/Drawstring.
I then got a bit worried that wasn’t enough for three months so added some more.
A British lady who lived in Germany has told me
We imported 1,000 per 6 months… for 2 people
so I have probably got enough for the time being.
15. German GPS maps.
My Garmin Oregon 300, trusty companion on all my trike journeys for the last three years, has UK maps (from OpenStreetmaps). I needed to download an up-to-date Germany map, which I did. It’s too large to fit in the Garmin’s internal memory but goes nicely onto this 2GB SD card.
16. Cycling maps of the area.
My cycling chum Morten from Hamburg sent me a Niederrhein Süd cycling map which covers a large area around Kempen at 1:75,000 scale. I also bought two more detailed maps (1:50,000, same as UK pink OS Map scale) of the districts of Viersen and Kleve. Kempen is in Viersen but right at the top – Kleve starts just a kilometre or so to the north.
These maps give me a very good cycling range with lots of detail and it’s massively easier to initially plan routes on paper maps than the Garmin.
This is the page of Viersen which shows Kempen at the top and Mönchengladbach at the bottom.
17. Think like a German – go metric
Of course, once I have fled to the continent I need to think like a continental – and that includes going metric in distances on the Garmin (I am already metric in weights when cooking, etc).
18. Join a choir.
For the last five years I’ve sung in a choir at Lion Walk Church, as well as one term with Colchester Choral Society, and really enjoyed it. When visiting Kempen previously I went along to the friendly social choir at the local church in Sankt Hubert. A lady there, Anja, got chatting to me and told me about a choir she attends which does more challenging music – Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, that sort of thing. She suggested that I join that choir, the Willicher MusikProject, who will be performing Beethoven’s Mass in C Major this autumn.
Anja chatted with the choir director to ask if I could join as I’d miss the first few practices (practising started in January 2014) and he said that was fine as long as I learned it before coming to the choir. I thought it polite to write to him myself at the beginning of the year so did so and got this response:
Liebe Frau H..,
Sie können gerne bei uns mitsingen. Herzlich willkommen in Willich!
Mit freundlichen Grüssen
19. Get the Choir sheet music.
The specific music the Willicher Musikprojekt are using didn’t seem to be available in UK music shops. Anja came to my rescue, buying me all the relevant bits and posting them to me.
And as for payment… I offered to send her the money but instead she suggested I take her out for breakfast or for cake at a rather fab-looking Kempen café called Mein Café. An excellent idea which I agreed to straight away!
20. Preparing some entertainment
Although I’ve got lots of plans for social things to do, I’ll have quite a few evenings on my own in the apartment. I thought it worth taking a few things to keep me occupied. (That includes the dog, of course!)
I shall also take my flute. There’s a piano in the apartment so hopefully I’ll be able to keep up with my music OK, as well as the choir of course.
21. Extra kitchen items
The kitchen in the apartment is very well stocked but there were a few things I decided I’d probably want to buy, one of which is chopping boards. They seemed ridiculously expensive in Germany (I looked – 8€ each or something!) and my Mum had a couple of spares so I’ll take those along. Also the cereal bowls in the apartment were very large or a bit small – I needed something in-between so will take some spares from home. And, of course, a British Flag mug!
I will need to buy a microwave oven when I get there but I assume they are pretty cheap like in the UK (we can get them for £40 from supermarkets). I’d want the German plug on it so I will buy it out there.
And of course I must not fail to mention the cake stand that James bought me for Christmas – it’s very important that I am able to display all the lovely German cakes properly so will take it with me, plus some rather lovely cake forks my friend Kirstie gave me.
22. Design a logo for my year in Germany
I decided that I’d like some kind of title for my year in Germany (apart from ‘Auntie Helen flees to the Continent’ and decided on ‘Six Wheels in Germany’ which I think describes it rather well.
I thought it’d be good to have a logo for my blog for this but have pretty hopeless design skills for that kind of thing so asked some friends on YACF if they might be able to come up with something.
I had two excellent designs from Deano and Nikki which I worked on a bit. This is what they came up with (with my amendments).
And Nikki’s option:
Because of my (lack of) technical skills I’d decided to go with the Deano option. I was then informed by a German lady that the Gothic font that I’ve used is unwise as it tends to suggest that I am sympathetic with far right radicals, so I’ve changed it to a general handwriting-type font thus:
23. Prepare some challenges for my year in Germany
I can’t just arrive in Germany and behave as if I’m living in the UK, just with better cakes. Friend Vince, who has lived in the Netherlands for over ten years, recommended that I give myself some goals/challenges for my time in Germany, to help give me some structure.
I’ve alluded to some goals above but here they are in a more concrete form:
(a) Increase my skill in German from B2 to C1 (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages)
(b) Cycle to all the churches in Kreis Viersen (I have started plotting them on a Google Map)
(c) Join a choir
(d) Get involved in some kind of cycling group in the area
24. Organise a leaving do.
As I would be fleeing to the continent for at least a year I thought it a good idea to organise a leaving do. Someone at church has organised one for me on the Sunday before I go (30 March) for my friends in the choir but I decided to arrange a bring-and-share cake at a local pub to me for Saturday 29th March. It’ll segue from afternoon tea and cake to evening beer and meals for various friends – I sent out a lot of invitations and it looks like there will be a good bunch of people dropping in to say hello over the afternoon and evening to send me on my way.
You need a lot of stuff when moving abroad for a year. I will be taking my trike, dog in crate and 27″ iMac which pretty much fill up the entire boot of our Audi A6 Estate on their own. Fortunately we also have a roofbox so I can put in my clothes, teabags and all the other things I’ll need to bring with me.
Packing started a few weeks ago with a box in the spare room into which I put things in as soon as I think of them, so as not to forget. The dog gets rather traumatised when we pack so we try to hide it from her – I don’t think she realises yet what’s going on but when I start packing my clothes up she will definitely work it out and will then stick to us like a limpet for the rest of the time until we leave (I think she’s afraid she’ll be left behind).
As James is coming with me for the first week or so we will have to have enough room for him to have a small bag of clothes too!
I have a list underway to which I add things whenever they spring to mind – things like spare electric toothbrush, computer backup disc, maps of Germany, cake stand and posh cake forks (see, I have my priorities right in terms of space in the car!), flute and more. Here’s hoping it all fits in.
Am I ready?
Well I think so. I’ve been planning this for so many years that I feel confident I have thought about most things. I’m really looking forward to my time in Germany – meeting new people, exploring new places by bike and on foot, improving my German skills, sampling cakes and more. I’ll be writing regular blog posts about my life in Germany so I hope that you will enjoy reading about it all over the next year or so.