Adjusting in Germany

A finger points to Germany on a globe

Moving to Germany: An Au Pair's Perspective

Germany is exotic. At least, as seen through Nargiza’s eyes. The young Kirghiz is spending a year living with a German family as an au pair.
by Petra Schönhöfer

Germany and Kyrgyzstan are two countries that couldn’t be more different. It is almost 5,000 air miles from Germany to the landlocked country in Central Asia. A high mountain range separates northern and southern Kyrgyzstan, a wild and barren strip that is a prominent feature of the country’s landscape. In summer, the continental climate sends temperatures soaring up to as hot as 45°C. Germany’s population density is ten times that of Kyrgyzstan, with its population of 5.5 million. And the weather is just as temperate as the landscape.

The differences between the Kyrgyzstani culture influenced as it is by the Russian Empire and the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan and the Western tradition that shapes Germany are enormous. Those who move between these two worlds are bound to experience one surprise or another. Or to put it in a nutshell: culture shock.

When the young Kirghiz Nargiza speaks of the many cultural differences between her home country and Germany, she uses the term “culture shock” with a certain fondness. Although she doesn’t sound very shocked but rather amused. In fact, it seems as though the frequency, and indeed the acuteness of this culture shock, is some kind of cachet for her time abroad. The 23-year-old interpreter is currently spending a year with a German guest family as an au pair.

For Nargiza, “culture shock” appears to be a collective term for all the unusual experiences that she wouldn’t have dreamed of in her home country. As such, she tells us all about her birthday, which she celebrated in a German restaurant. A particularly festive occasion, you would think. However, one thing Nargiza found rather strange was that guests were allowed to bring their dogs into the restaurant with them. Didn’t animals belong on the street?

But she was even more amazed by family life in Germany: Since her guest family recently welcomed two new additions, twins, her guest father changing nappies is by no means a rare sight in the house. Unthinkable–a Kyrgyzstani man changing nappies, doing such a traditionally female task, she thought. “It’s also something of a culture shock to see German students smoking and drinking beer in public,” admits the devout Muslim, who doesn’t drink any alcohol.

Yet it is precisely such differences that make life as an au pair so exciting, say the young woman. The decision to spend a year in Germany wasn’t a particularly difficult one for Nargiza, who studied to become an interpreter for English and German. “But my English is much better than my German,” she adds somewhat timidly. “And I wanted to use the stay in Germany as an opportunity to improve my command of the German language.” It was the German au pair agency AbroadConnection that helped her find a place with the Schlütsmeiers in Landsberg.

Nargiza now has plenty of opportunities to deepen her knowledge of the German language with her Bavarian guest family, as well as learning about the customs and traditions in her guest country. She spends around five to six hours a day helping her guest family with household chores and looking after the children. She often goes out for walks with the twins who are now just a few weeks old. The new additions naturally keep the family on their toes. Johannes, the oldest son in Nargiza’s guest family, already goes to kindergarten and is still getting used to not receiving his parent’s undivided attention now that he has siblings. So he is especially happy when Nargiza takes time for him, plays with him, and is generally there for him. “I only have two siblings myself but I have a lot of younger cousins, nieces, and nephews. So I really enjoy taking care of children. It’s completely normal thing for me to do,” says Nargiza. 

However, the German weather is something that is anything but normal for Nargiza. No wonder, she arrived in Germany in the midst of the record-breaking winter of 2013. “So much rain and so much snow…,” says Nargiza, still shaking her head just thinking about it. She is bombarded with a never-ending flood of new impressions here in Germany.

Another example is German cuisine. Nargiza cooks for her guest family twice a week, a way to take some of the weight off of her guest mother’s shoulders. But it certainly took a while for her to get used to the Bavarian diet. In her home country, the cuisine normally consists of filled beef or mutton dishes served with some vegetables. Beshbarmak is one of the country’s traditional dishes–translating to “five fingers” as it is a dish that is eaten with one’s hands–and served with kumis (fermented mare’s milk), butter, and flatbread with creamy kaymak. In the larger cities, one can even find pierogi or shashlik on the menu, dishes that are also well-known in Germany. However, dishes with a Mediterranean influence such as pasta or pizza are nowhere to be seen there. Which are Nargiza’s favorite foods here in Germany? “Potatoes!” she answers without hesitation, the South American import hit that is considered so typically German abroad, of all things!

Yet Nargiza’s enthusiasm for her guest country goes far beyond her stomach. She might not have been here for long, but she has already taken the opportunity to see a bit of Germany beyond the town she’s living in, e.g. with a trip to Regensburg. And Nargiza only had good things to say about it: “The architecture was really impressive.” No wonder, Regensburg’s old town is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The only thing that could beat it was a stay in the Bavarian capital of Munich. It is not without reason that Bavaria is considered “typically German” across the world; after all many of the customs in the southern Bavarian region are hugely popular worldwide. And although not quite as prominent as in the Rhineland, Carnival–in Germany mostly referred to as Fasching– is still very popular in many Bavarian cities. This is something else that was completely new to Nargiza. She could hardly believe that things could get so crazy here in strait-laced Germany. She really enjoyed the bright, colorful, and clownish goings-on. And which other impressions has she gathered in her guest country? “Germans are so punctual. Even public transport, buses, or trains, are almost always on-time. Things are quite different in Kyrgyzstan in this respect.”        

Despite all the positive experiences and exciting opportunities, like most au pairs, Nargiza does have to contend with home sickness now and again. But she still has almost a whole year to go before she returns to her home country to work as an interpreter or teacher. So she takes time to email her friends, every day if possible, telling them all about her experiences in German and astonishing them with her stories. On the weekend she talks to with her parents via Skype, who listen to her stories with the keenest of interest. After all, their daughter has never been away from home for so long and so far away at that. In addition to the language course she attends three times a week, Nargiza also has some time to herself, when she often visits other au pairs in the region. Exchanging experiences with their guest families, the conversations are often lively to say the least. So what do they talk about most? Nargiza laughs: “About culture shock of course.”    

by Petra Schönhöfer