Podcast Interview: Expat Life Germany
SHAUN: Welcome to Expat Life Germany [now called The Germany Experience], the podcast about life in Germany as seen through the eyes of expats. I’m your host, Shaun, and I am very excited about today’s episode. This week’s guest is Anna Noakes Schulze, who gave a TEDx talk called Living Abroad Teaches Us the Power of Connections. There’s a link to the talk in the show notes and I highly recommend that you watch it. It’s about the threads that connect us to people throughout our lives and she starts the talk by quoting this Chinese proverb:
An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break.
So I really like this because what it’s really about is how the people we meet and form connections with shape who we are even if we are living in different cities or countries or even continents and as Anna herself says, it’s about the persistence of those connections that we make.
Now this is something that really rings true for expats and it certainly struck a chord with me, and so I reached out to Anna and invited her to be on the show and, guess what, she said yes! So, a little bit more about Anna before we start: she has been an expat multiple times over, she is originally from Montreal, Canada she lived in the USA, England, Thailand, Ireland and now lives in Leverkusen, Germany. She owns a company called SunflowerUX which is dedicated to digital customer experience support for entrepreneurs and small business owners. And she's the mother of two teenage boys with special needs and somehow, she still found the time to put together a TEDx talk.
In my interview with her, Anna expands on some of the points that she made in her talk and she goes into more of her own expat story. We also cover the question of identity, learning German too fast, managing social media to keep up with friends and family, parenting special needs children in Germany and, of course, we speak about her TEDx talk. So, here's my interview with Anna Noakes Schulze:
SHAUN: Maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background.
ANNA: I grew up in somewhat unusual circumstances although I did not realise it at the time. My father was an immigrant from England who came to Montreal as a young man and there he met my mother who is French Canadian, a Montreal girl born and bred. But I mostly grew up in English-speaking rural eastern Ontario, because my father had moved there for a job. And we were quite isolated there. We had very little contact with other family members on either side. And the first thing you notice is that this is already quite similar to a typical expat experience, even though I was living in my own home country, where it's a nuclear family and the wider relatives and family members are just not around.
ANNA: Years later when I was living in Bangkok, I started to become interested in this idea of third-culture kids and realised that not only were my kids third-culture kids, but I was as well, even before there was a name for that. What it means, these third-culture kids, they are kids that are growing up in a culture that is not their father’s and it's not their mother’s, therefore a third culture. And now here I am years and years later raising my children in Germany with their American father and their Canadian mother, and they are now second-generation third-culture kids growing up in Germany.
ANNA: So yeah, I think a key theme for expats everywhere and at every age is dislocation. You are literally not in the right place, or you're trying to find out if this place is the right place, or who are you in this place and which bits and pieces of the various cultures that you've known can you stitch together into some kind of coherent value system that to you says “home.” So you live with this chronic state of uncertainty around your identity, chronic uncertainty around belonging, and often this really shows itself in a strong desire to adapt to wherever you are and to fit into new environments. So, you stand out automatically, but you'd really prefer not to.
SHAUN: Yeah, I think you very eloquently put what a lot of expats go through. Now you've been an expat in several places. How did you get from Canada to Germany?
ANNA: It was a bit of a convoluted trail and it started with a fairly unexotic move, I guess, because I left Canada to study for a master's degree in information and library sciences at the University of Michigan. That was my first expat experience and it was it was kind of a funny one in a lot of ways because for Canadians you grow up next to the United States. They're obviously ten times the size you are and massively influential in the world in terms of culture and everything, and you feel like you know them. But then once you actually live in that country you realise there's so much more to it than you realised. Sharing a few TV shows and comedians is not really enough to convey what that culture means. And in the case of the United States it’s a massively diverse culture depending on where you are and who you're talking to, so that was a that was my first big shock and my first big eye-opener.
ANNA: I was there for my master's degree and I started doctoral studies in the same school but at that point I met my husband. Within a fairly short time of knowing each other he got his first overseas automotive assignment in Coventry, England. We did the long-distance thing for a couple of years until I went to join him and that's where our two children were born. I didn't realise at the time that this expat life was going to be a long-term thing. We thought it was one assignment in England and then we would move back to the US and get back to normal lives, like normal people, and it didn't turn out like that at all.
ANNA: So, after I think, he was nearly five years in England and there are some tax implications, I guess, for companies that have expat employees longer than that, so it came to an end and we had to return to the US. And then something came up in Thailand and we'd only been in the States for a year and we just said yes. So then off to Thailand for three years, which was a dream by the way, it was really a heavenly experience, and then crashing back to reality in Ireland for two years.
SHAUN: Not such a great experience?
ANNA: I had to do my own ironing! [shocked] And give up the maids, the nannies, the drivers, the sunshine and flowers twelve months a year…
SHAUN: That is quite a lifestyle change!
ANNA: Yeah, it was a big lifestyle change and maybe in a way Thailand doesn't represent reality when you're there on a foreign assignment. Back to Ireland and I went back to work with my firm in London and I literally flew to my job twice a week. I got on a plane in Dublin in the early hours of the morning on Tuesday and I stayed in the company flat for two nights and I came back late on Thursday. So, my husband was holding down his job, getting the kids to school, I was flying back and forth to England. And then we had a chance for an assignment in Germany and at that point we realised our children were still crying about people they had known from two moves before. That's when we realised that we couldn't keep doing this. We had to offer them a home. So, we settled down in Germany and it's been ten years now, and the only home that my children can actually remember at this point. So, I do sometimes feel like I envy the people who know exactly where their home is because for me home is everywhere and nowhere.
SHAUN: Right. Do your children now, you say this is their home now right?
SHAUN: And that was actually one of my questions to you. With this kind of lifestyle that you've led was, whether you’re going go, if this one is the one that's going to be permanent now so even -- but it sounds to me like you've kind of decided that Germany is where you'll settle.
ANNA: Well it's, it's still kind of in flux. It's very, very tricky because my husband is now working in Canada. He's in my home country. [laughter] Hanging out with my brothers and our old friends and having barbecues with them.
SHAUN: You guys do not want to keep things simple! [laughter] You do not believe in the simplification of things. [laughter]
ANNA: No, no. [laughter] And know what? Maybe it would be boring, I don't know.
SHAUN: It would be boring. It would be boring. Too simple and boring.
ANNA: Sometimes it’s a bit too much excitement sometimes because this job in Canada is also temporary and we have two special needs teenagers who've never known anything but the German school system. And one of them is only one year away from graduating and being able to study, and the other one has three more years. So, you can't just pull them out and put them in a completely foreign school system in Canada and say that oh, it'll be okay because everything's in English. They’ve been educated in German the whole time, you know. You just can't do that to them. But meanwhile my poor husband he's been sitting in the same job for eight years to give us this stability to give us this home. But there comes a point where he needs a new challenge and also, he's at a level where if you keep saying no, the offers don't keep coming. So, it was really important for him to make that step forward and somehow, we had to figure out if we could do this and we decided we could.
SHAUN: So maybe you can tell me something about your career path and the things that drive you today.
ANNA: Yeah, I think my career path has been absolutely hilarious actually. So, I studied long and hard to have a conventional career, that was the whole plan. Then in the early years that I was married I did get a taste of that, you know, working in the digital agency scene in London. But once we started this relocation; moving to the US, moving to Thailand, moving back to Ireland, it became harder and harder to hold on to a conventional career and then when I got to Germany, I thought okay - kajung - stability! Here it is! I assumed that, okay, sure I have a new language to learn but my native language is a Germanic language. This is going to be so easy!
SHAUN: Yeah, how difficult can it be? [laugher]
ANNA: How hard can it be? [laugher] When I got here, I was a busy little bee. I got right into the Volkshochschule (VHS) and was doing these intensive [German] courses that was like a half day every day and I hammered away at that. And I got after two years or less than three years (maybe was two and a half) I got my Goethe Institute C1 certificate and at that point there are no other courses above that except for the C2. The C2 is literary. It's not like let's polish up your German it's like let's take all the stuff you did in your English degree and do it all over again in German, and I don't really repeat myself.
ANNA: I was looking for German mastery but what I got is, I went too quickly to the end of this whole series of courses. I got to the end and there was nothing more. My German was still wobbly, but I didn't have any more courses that I could take. Then even the German conversation courses became a bit problematic because here's the reality of the situation. You have twelve, fourteen people there (the students) who were speaking German very badly and only one person (the teacher) is actually speaking German well. So, most of what you're hearing is wrong, and you pick up other people's mistakes and bad habits that you'll still be correcting years later.
ANNA: So in the end, the reason that integration is so important is not just so that you feel at home in Germany but so that you spend time speaking with native German speakers because that’s how you're going to master it -- assuming that they're willing to keep correcting you. Because I'm now at the point where I catch my own mistakes and I think, ah you didn't tell me that was wrong; I had to fix that myself! [laughter]
ANNA: But that's the state of things and the reality when you learn a new language as an adult. The chances that you'll ever have it completely perfect are pretty slim.
SHAUN: Yes, that's something I'm having to cope with as well.
SHAUN: I think, at this point I've been here twelve years and I realise my German is probably not going to be much better than it is now. I just have to; I mean I can still work at it and things, but I guess this is pretty much me maxed out.
ANNA: You might be maxed out and it will take a lot of effort to continue shifting it.
ANNA: I only regret that I didn't start watching TV in German from the start because I think I would have had the flow of conversation. I might have even picked up some swear words which I think is a gaping hole in my, you know, in my German skills. [laugher]
SHAUN: Yes, it is always useful to have a swear word or two to fall back on. [laugher] I find it very difficult with the colloquialisms and I think that's the big thing that you learn from TV shows and things like that, but I can’t bring myself to watch dubbed movies and TV shows. I just cannot watch something that I know is in another language in German. It just completely takes me out of the emotion of the whole experience.
ANNA: Yeah and that's the really tricky thing is the dubbing is quite…poor.
ANNA: At least for television. For some of the movies you might find there’s some high-quality dubbing but for the TV shows it seems like the same four or five people are doing all the voices [laugher] and some of them are completely inappropriate.
SHAUN: Yeah, yeah, and I was horrified when I moved to Germany and I watched The Simpsons in German for the first time and...
ANNA: That’s exactly what I was thinking of!
SHAUN: …and I was…I couldn’t…I cannot accept that as Homer Simpson's voice. I'm sorry, I just cannot accept it as his voice. [laugher]
ANNA: And Marge is all wrong too.
SHAUN: Yeah, they’re all completely wrong. [laugher] So, let's turn to the TEDx talk and one of the things that popped out to me in the TEDx talk was you said that after a while in Germany you didn't know who Frau Schulze was. We've already touched a bit on the identity aspect but how much of a culture shock was it actually adjusting to life here in Germany?
ANNA: For me it was absolutely huge because I was already a veteran of expat life in four other countries before we got to Germany. And I felt that I was more or less a professional at this, and that I can come skidding in the door and assess the situation and adapt, and presto bingo bango I'm part of the new culture. And I really thought it would be that easy, but I think Germany was the first experience I've had where a foreign language was as dominant in my life as it was. Certainly in Bangkok, Thailand almost everybody that I had to deal with spoke English as well so it it's kind of a soft landing in a way compared to here.
ANNA: And I had a really strange experience at first that I still can't even explain. I've got to get some linguist to explain it to me, but it was almost as if what I was hearing was very selective. And I heard English voices just fine all the time and there's nothing wrong with my hearing, I've been checked, [laugher] but German voices were tuned out almost automatically. It was like my brain was saying that can't be relevant to me or they're not talking to me. I literally didn't hear it and people would have to get my attention, you know?
SHAUN: [laugher] Flag you down!
ANNA: Yes, and this is this is what I was saying, when people called me Frau Schulze, I literally didn't turn around because I'm not listening for that name and didn't even connect it with the fact that I was Frau Schulze. So that was the one thing and then the other thing, of course, is identity which we touched on: that once my career was on hold to learn a new language and I had a big difficulty settling my children into school then that side of my life took over and I thought, I seem to have ended up as a more or less a Hausfrau and I didn't see it coming.
SHAUN: So, you had to kind of redefine who Frau Schulze was in Germany.
ANNA: Yeah, and I think this new Frau Schulze can be a good thing, but I've never had that experience where the identity that I thought I had didn't come with me, and then the identity that I had in my mind for Germany also didn't match the reality and that was part of the culture shock that I had as well.
SHAUN: Uh huh.
ANNA: Everybody outside of Germany thinks of these sleek cars and technology and engineering and efficiency and so I come here, and I expect a thoroughly modern country. And don't forget I've come from Southeast Asia. That's about as modern as it gets. But then I arrive, and I start thinking, why is it still the 1970s here? [laughter] Why is there so much bureaucracy and why oh why are rules more important people? Why is the internet so slow? [laughter] I didn't understand any of this. It didn't make any sense. And there were times when I literally felt like Don Draper in that scene in Mad Men when he's coming away from a barbecue in the suburbs and he's thinking, when I open my eyes, I want to see skyscrapers.
SHAUN: [laughter] That’s Frau Schulze.
ANNA: Yeah, that was me. [laughter] And I don't know if you've ever tried to research any particular topic in German, probably you have. Like you need some information about some Amt [government office] or whatever and you do these Google searches and these websites are total nonsense. [laughter] They don't have the information you want, or the information's wrong, or it's out of date, or it’s a forum …
SHAUN: Yeah, absolutely.
ANNA: …and a whole bunch of people who don't know what they're talking about are talking about that exact theme and that's what comes up on Google.
ANNA: And so you never get the sense that you can just go to the internet and find the right information. Sooner or later you're going to have to deal with a person.
SHAUN: Yeah, absolutely. So, this Ted talk, the TEDx talk that you did, that was in Dusseldorf, right?
ANNA: That’s right. It was it was at the International School of Dusseldorf (ISD) and I guess the way I found out about it was, it was connections leading to connections leading to other connections, basically. So, the International School of Dusseldorf put on their first TEDx talks last year, I believe, if I have it correct so 2018. 2019 was the second time. They put out a call for speakers and it turned out the theme was “how are we connected” and I thought, this is fantastic…
SHAUN: Kind of my thing!
ANNA: That's something I can speak about from the heart! And you know, it never occurred to me to do a TEDx talk before, but I liked the idea of it. So, I decided I would do that and that I had a message that I wanted to share with people and that was the persistence of our connections to others. And that's the case even if they're in our daily lives or not. You think about your parents and how influential they are for you. If they're still back in South Africa you're not seeing them every day, you are probably not talking to them every day, too, but they're still massively influential in your life. I was trying to share with people the idea that it's not just your parents it's a lot of people that you meet along this journey and that everyone that you know basically becomes a part of who you are.
SHAUN: Yeah, even the people that, you know, you shouldn't be afraid to make connections with people even if you think they're going to be in your life for six months, a year, or they might go back to where they came from if they're another expat because they still have some kind of connection to you. And I find sometimes people, there have been some people in my life who were a chance encounter where we literally just met and then didn't even live in the same city or country and we are more connected than people that I see every single day. It's very strange, you just don't know how those connections are going to form and bond and the one thing is that they that they stayed through time.
ANNA: Yes, I actually met one of my best friends here in Germany and just about six years ago she moved back to Melbourne, Australia. It’s so, so far away and it's not like I can just nip in for a cup of tea like we used to do but we've kept up our connection. I am looking for an opportunity to go back and see her and as my boys get older it becomes more and more likely that I can find a way to do that. I guess I didn't mention my boys hate to travel. They absolutely hate it!
SHAUN: [laughter] Well there goes that option!
ANNA: Yeah so here we are living in the middle of Europe where you could do some amazing travels every weekend…
SHAUN: You could see so many things!
ANNA: …and I'm stuck at home. [laughter]
SHAUN: What do you do for vacations?
ANNA: Actually, there's one kind of trip that they can pretty much cope with and that's trips back home to see family. So, we go back to Canada, I think we see our Canadian relatives about once every two years, and as my in-laws have gotten older, we've gone back about every year to New Hampshire in the US where they live.
ANNA: The cousins are growing up rapidly, and aunts and uncles are getting older and the grandparents are getting older and we really feel the loss of having more time with them because we're over here and so when we do travel it's back to see family. When I do anything other than that it's like a short business trip or I have these legendary girls’ weekends away that I do with some of my friends here. [laughter] I've gotten to see a fair bit of Europe because we'll go anywhere that Ryanair flies for the weekend and we just say that's where we're going. We’re going to Sofia Bulgaria next weekend or we're going to Santorini next year, we've been to Valencia and various other places, or to Paris and little by little we've crisscrossed this continent.
SHAUN: It's good to have the time for yourself to be with friends to bond maybe get out of your everyday situation. I find is the best thing.
ANNA: Yeah and I think we there's something very freeing for all of us because we all have, some of us are working, some of us have businesses, some of us have of full time care of children and we're always responsible for other people but when we go away on these little trips it's just…us.
ANNA: Yeah, a short little dose of freedom and then we can go back to our normal lives and be perfectly happy with that.
SHAUN: So, you mentioned I think in the talk at some point you mentioned Facebook. What is your relationship to social media?
ANNA: Ah…reluctant. Yeah, it's reluctant. I have not figured out how to get all of the benefits of social media while drowning out all the things that are not so great and I have tried to wrangle Facebook in many different ways, actually. I have a few good tricks up my sleeve. I use Social Fixer to sort of reduce some of the rubbish that gets piled into my feed, and I…
SHAUN: Is that an app or what is that?
ANNA: It is a Chrome extension and it allows you to control whether sponsored posts get shown to you (they're basically advertisements), so I try to get the sponsored posts out. And I've managed to ringfence it in a certain way in which for all of my important people in my life I have notifications turned on, but I have them unfollowed, so I don't see any of their stuff in my feed but I get a notification. If it's like a cute cat video okay, I can skip that but if they're having a knee operation, I want to know about it or if there's a celebration or occasion. So, I can do like a quick scan of the notifications and see what I need to look at, but my Facebook feed is mostly just informational pages about small business, about customer experience about other things, things that I might share to my business Facebook page. I've managed to completely separate these by sheer effort and there's still a fair bit of rubbish in there. The key thing is that we all have to be really careful about how much time we give to this because it can be bottomless. SHAUN: It is bottomless. That's kind of my thing at the moment is trying to find that level and I'm definitely going to try that what do you call it Social Fixer or what was it? ANNA: Social Fixer. Let me just take a look at it… [NB: here’s the link to download Social Fixer for Facebook]
SHAUN: I'll put that in the show notes as well. I'll put the link in the show notes because that's exactly the kind of struggle that I'm having now because I find that social media is a great way of keeping track of some of those threads or those connections especially to family. They have a bond or a connection to me that they wouldn't have had otherwise with me living on a different continent so there's all of that, that really, it's developed a lot of friendships, but it's also developed a lot of negativity.
ANNA: Ah, yes… [sighing]
SHAUN: I started realizing a lot of my mindset was based on sometimes the way that I was using social media and I needed to take a step back from that. And that’s kind of kind of where I am, and yeah.
ANNA: Yeah, and in fact I can I can speak to that as well the negativity that you will sometimes see; the grumbling and complaining and the outrage on social media can really affect your own mentality. One of the things I wanted to say is that one of the things have become aware of since I've been in Germany is how dependent I was on the moods of others for my own mood. When people were mean to me in public or they yelled at me that I park like an idiot I shouldn’t dress my kids that way or whatever I really felt under siege and it and it brought me down. There were times when I really just wanted to stay in my house and not leave. And I think one of the good things is I've become I think more emotionally resilient as a result of this — that I'm the one responsible. I’m responsible for my mood and I'm responsible for my happiness. It's nobody else's job and I've really kind of learned that by experience. Maybe there are smart people that can learn that when they're twenty, but it took me a lot longer.
SHAUN: No, I don’t think so. It's a good approach, but the problem is but sometimes realising what the triggers for certain moods are because sometimes you're in, you have a certain... I don’t want to say mood but a certain maybe a certain behaviour or a certain thing that's triggered by something you need to figure out, that trigger was actually coming from social media or some kind of negative feedback loop that you got involved in. So yeah, it's quite a love-hate relationship for me and social media at the moment.
ANNA: Yeah and I think you've got to realise too that in the end it's a mix of German and expat friends that you really need to have a healthy life in Germany. Because your German friends are the ones who are rooting you in this authentic experience of living in Germany and they're really important. They're also your cultural translators. When there are things going on that you just don't understand they'll explain, this is how it works here, and you need that, but those relationships take time. I didn't even really have proper German friends in the first couple of years. I just had neighbors who were being nice to me. And then on the other hand you've got these expat friends and they can come and go but they're generally quicker to make friends, quicker to laugh a lot of the time and quicker to help you feel at home. And you need that in the time that it takes for your German skills to improve enough to have real friendships with Germans. And in the meantime, you've got to be warming your hands by the fire somewhere and don't look to social media for that [no!] because you're going to burn your hands there. [laughter]
SHAUN: Yes, but I think that mixture of German and expat friends is true and also don't rush it like if you find that you're not making connections with Germans fast enough. Then the thing we had to learn as well as just take your time [take your time] don’t be too much in their faces, just back off a little and wait for it to happen.
ANNA: And you can’t just glom on to them right away because it makes them uncomfortable. So, you've got to pace yourself there.
SHAUN: And something that stood out to me about your story because I have a son with special needs as well and you've touched on it before already but you describe in the talk a ten-year nightmare involving special needs and a school system not designed for accommodating difference. Tell me a bit more about that.
ANNA: Well it was, yeah, it was really interesting. We were bound and determined to integrate. We knew people who had spent time in Germany because of work assignments and had put their kids in international school and then when they left their kids really didn't speak German. We thought, it’s kind of like, we felt like it might be a wasted opportunity and that we should really go whole hog for integration. So, we will put our kids straight into the German school system and they'll be fluent and we (by some miracle) will become fluent and we will be integrated and that was that was the whole goal. And then it turned out to be…[laughter] The challenges just seemed to multiply from there. For one thing I assumed that my husband was fluent in German. And so our kids are the German school system we keep getting these letters from the school and I say to him, what does this letter say? And he says, no idea! I don't know! [laughter]
SHAUN: Oh no! You're supposed to be the German guy… [laughter]
ANNA: He was supposed to be, you know, he was my German-American husband who was unusually dedicated (for an American, unusually dedicated) to learning other languages. He had picked up some Polish, picked up some French and was fluent enough in German to get this job but he didn't understand Grundschule-ese. [laughter] That's for sure. [laughter]
ANNA: And then the problems started coming up right away. We were able to get one of these Ganztagschule places where the kids are in school until four o'clock in the afternoon and for us it was important because they would get more German that way. And I couldn't help them with homework anyway because I didn't understand any of it. And every day I would pick up my kids and the staff would be trying to tell me about this or that problem, and it was really kind of interesting in hindsight because they had this sense that something wasn't quite right with them. In the case of my son with severe ADHD that, they got that, they understood that completely, they were all over it. We started getting treatments and therapies for him but for the older one they felt like there was some sort of developmental issue, but they didn't have the expertise of course to diagnose it. What they have is a really good sense of where the normal range is because they see so many kids over the years.
SHAUN: They see these kids every day.
ANNA: They get a good sense of normal, but when something falls outside of what they understand to be normal they're not equipped to diagnose it, you know. They can't do that, so they were pushing me to get my older son checked out and diagnosed to find out if there was some problem. And I was getting pushback from the specialists that I was consulting, and they were saying he's a completely normal kid, leave him alone, he just needs time and all of this stuff. So, I was getting it from both sides where I'll I was told I was a paranoid mother, a nervous mother, that I was just looking for problems with my child. But the [school] staff were after me every day saying there's something not right here and I got, I was like, I was caught in the middle. I didn't really have the language skills to respond appropriately or, you know, to be convincing, to make a case to somebody.
SHAUN: Or even to extract the right information from people. Absolutely, yeah.
ANNA: And it almost like, it was almost like a puzzle. I had to find the right information to express the right way to the right person at the right time to get help. And in the end my older son was diagnosed with autism at age fourteen, which is quite late.
SHAUN: Which is very late, very late, yeah. Although I do know this seems to be quite a common thing in Germany because I also know another expat whose eldest son was also autistic and they also I think they also picked it up around fourteen or fifteen years old and they had been backwards and forwards and they were saying something is not right so it seems to be quite a common thing that approach, to kind of say, no everything's fine everything's fine let them develop and we'll see where it goes it should be fine for years and before you know it the kid's fourteen and that's when you get your diagnosis.
ANNA: Yeah, although a very interesting thing happened when as soon as we got the diagnosis. It completely -- you wouldn't believe how quickly people can just switch to working the problem. Like when you don't have a diagnosis there's just a sort of general upset and concern and can’t you speak to your son and can’t you talk to him about this or whatever and then as soon as you have a diagnosis it's like suddenly there's a framework for understanding what the problem is and that that helped tremendously, and by then I'd sort of by trial and error, I had worked up an entire team of people.
ANNA: There's a very useful service here in Germany called the Schulpsychologischer Dienst. So, it's the School Psychological Service and they're the people you go to if there's a learning disability of some kind, or a behavioural problem of some kind, or you need to somehow get yourself slotted into the psychological services in some way. They’re like gatekeeper people and keyholders to this mysterious German system and we had an Ansprechpartnerin, a case worker, in the Schulpsychologischer Dienst who was fabulous and who was able to speak to me in English which was such a relief because I was so used to being misunderstood. I had people seizing on the granular meaning of a particular word I was using, and I was trying to explain to them, this isn't the word I really want to use this is just the closest I can get to what I’m trying to say.
SHAUN: Yeah, they just focus on that…
ANNA: And they would really focus on that and it was such a relief to just after all this trying so hard to cope in German, always trying to do everything in German, to find someone where I could just let down and say could we just please speak English, it would really mean a lot to me. And she was great, she was really the person that got both boys on to the path of having the right medications if applicable, or the right treatments or the right therapies, if applicable, and because she has a perfect understanding of the German school system and German healthcare system and how these referrals work. We couldn't have survived without her. She was just an incredible help.
SHAUN: Okay so then you got the diagnosis and then everything kind of took a turn for the better.
ANNA: Well first I had to take a turn for the worse! So in the end there was an important gateway that we had to pass through which is a full a diagnosis of both of our boys in a psychology clinic and what had happened with our older son is just as he was coming into puberty so around age thirteen, fourteen, he seems to be very depressed, very low functioning, his grades were dropping at school the teacher said he couldn't pay attention. He would just stare out the window and dream and he began sleeping literally twelve to fourteen hours a day. So, it started with this concern how is it even possible that he's sleeping most of his life at this point and we got a referral to go to a, there is an actual children's hospital with a sleep lab. And we got him into the sleep lab for I think it was for four or five nights and he would be all taped up with sensors and they would check the readings of him and we're trying to see if you have some kind of sleep disturbance. And it turned out he didn't, it was completely fine. It was like, it was almost like he was choosing to sleep that long.
ANNA: So, when we came up empty there that's when he got a referral for an inpatient treatment and diagnosis at a Kinder- und Jugend-Psychiatrie clinic so it’s children and youth psychology and psychiatry, so a specialist facility. And they do things like, they deal with some pretty serious cases: kids that are suicidal, kids that are anorexic, kids that have major problems. And so we put him in there to get this diagnosis and it took a full eight weeks that he was in there really unhappy the whole time wanting to come home. And we were a little bit shocked by the atmosphere in the clinic because here we were thinking we have struggled and struggled for so long and now we're going to get answers, we're going to get help, we're going to get support. It's like cavalry's coming but their attitude was that until it was known otherwise, we were the problem. If they didn't have, if my son and then the other one who followed him a few weeks later, if they didn't have these idiot parents, they’d probably be fine.
ANNA: And these are mental health professionals were talking about, people who should know better. And it's hurtful too, it's just massively hurtful. You think you're going to be partners in getting these children well and then you find out that they're against you and they undermine you and they misrepresent what you discussed in meetings even though you have the notes. Things like that. So, you think the cavalry’s coming and instead it's the Visigoths who come slashing and burning and now you've got to deal with them too. [laughter]
SHAUN: That is quite a powerful metaphor but do you, I can hear that there was a certain amount of, I guess you can say that you went through hell at that point in time. Because I know what it's like, as I said with my son being special needs as well. I get a lot of what you're saying, especially the stuff that's coming in German, the German reports we we're dealing with, a lot of the German language at times. Back then our German wasn't as good as it as it is now. So, there were a lot of things that we didn't understand what they were saying and sometimes things were so nuanced or so you know…
ANNA: You’re really at a disadvantage. [laughter]
SHAUN: Yeah, absolutely, and it's a really stressful thing because all you want, obviously you just want your kids to be okay and if they're not okay you want to fix it, you want to like how do we fix this and I can imagine if you feel like these people are working against you and not in the best interests of the child and you know your child better than anyone so…
ANNA: We should have been a resource for them, I would have thought.
ANNA: Because nobody knew them better. Exactly.
ANNA: And in the end, we had these grave misgivings about the kind of care that they were getting and what the intentions of these people were, and we couldn't even pull them out. It wasn't in our power to remove them from that place until they said they were ready.
SHAUN: Until they say they can leave…
ANNA: It in the end not everybody was like that and there were certainly there were two people I can think of who were really kind and caring but, for me, it definitely raised some trust issues and I've had them in other contexts here as well where I see people here who are working at what we think of as the caring professions who maybe don't come that naturally by the caring part. [laughter]
SHAUN: But you kind of have to look at them and think how did you end up working in this job? How? Why? Oh, that sounds like absolute, I see. I think the term that you chose nightmare is quite apt.
ANNA: Yeah, is this is not to negate the role of all the people who were tremendously helpful to us and supportive and kind, and it wasn't just other expats it was Germans as well; German friends, German neighbours, German professionals. There are good people out there and you know it's just like if you're out in public in somewhere and you're just trying to do your bottle recycling and the senior citizens are hanging off their balconies yelling at you because it's the wrong time of day -- nööö!
SHAUN: I know!
ANNA: I try not to focus on that too much and I think about, I think in a lot of ways we've been really blessed. And I think if you can't automatically assume that everybody is going to be nice to you that maybe you appreciate it a bit more. I don't, I certainly don't take it for granted and I have you know tremendous feelings of gratitude to everybody who's been kind and decent to me.
SHAUN: Yes! Yes, that's such a good point! [laughter] Now that you mention it that's exactly right because when someone is nice to you just kind of latch on to them and say oh my god, we are going to do everything together we're going to solve everything.
ANNA: Yeah, you’re stuck with me now! [laughter]
SHAUN: I think maybe that's why the Germans are not so friendly to us. [laughter]
ANNA: Well, you know what? It’s a different approach to friendship and I and I sort of get it and I've tried to explain it to people back home. Because I was very shy when I grew up in Canada and I was slow to make friends but it's this whole experience of being an expat that's made me much more outgoing and quicker to make friends. So, I was a little bit taken aback when I first came here and I would I would meet other women and I would think, well I'm a woman you’re a woman of course we could be friends, right? That's how it works, we’ve got something in common already. And they might want to “siezen” me [use the formal Sie], you know to speak in the more formal style with me, and they want to call me Frau Schulze and this could go on for months. And I'm like, well, if it takes you six months to decide if you like me or not, I’m not sure if I'm really still warm to this friendship, you know. [laughter] But for Germans it's almost like, there’s almost an approach to friendship that we Canadians would expect if we were told making friends with that person means you might in the future have to help them with their mortgage payment. If we looked at that way then we might think, ooh I think I'll be careful here. [laughter]
SHAUN: That's exactly what it's like. [laughter]
ANNA: Yeah but at the same time it speaks to commitment as well that I think when you do become friends it really does mean something. And is maybe less of a fluid situation that it would be for us. Maybe!
SHAUN: What I found is, what I found as well is it's more with the, and when I say older I don't mean that much older I mean let's say forty to forty upwards, I find that the younger people are much easier to make connection with a much more open than maybe the previous generation.
ANNA: You know, I'm sensing that as well I'm sensing a little bit more openness and fluidity to connections. That's what my kids tell me anyway.
SHAUN: Anna for new expats coming to Germany what is your advice to them to find those meaningful connections in a foreign country?
ANNA: Well I think one of the things that that we just touched on is realising that you have to have patience obviously with your German friendships and that the expat friendships might happen a little bit faster. But I think the main thing is to find where you have points of commonality with others so that you can build a sense of connection around them, and there are a lot of things going on in Germany around their hobbies, clubs, sports, Vereins.
ANNA: You know, you can meet parents at the school where your children go, or language courses or groups, or any kind of shared activities because what seems to really help is just doing something together or having an interest that that you have in common. And for me the thread in every single foreign country that I've lived in (except for the United States) is I've always done volunteering with the American International Women's Clubs. And that satisfied a lot of different needs I had, not just social connection and activities but also charity activities as well and sort of being aware of what's going on where you live and where you can make a difference and that’s been huge for me.
SHAUN: Anna, it's been absolutely amazing chatting to you. I think you're very inspirational.
ANNA: Thank you so much.