Lessons in Acclimating to A New Country — or — Four Things About My German Therapist

by Rebecca A. Watson on July 11, 2014

in expat, Germany, life

Moving to a new area can be a nerve-wracking enterprise for anyone, regardless of whether it’s across a state or across an ocean. Will the stores carry the food I like? Is there a yarn shop? Are there abundant supplies of cheap avocados?

(The answer for Freiburg: Mostly. Yes, several. No. Not ever. You will weep at the sight of hard, sad little avocados that cost more than $2 each.)

For someone like me, who has issues with low-grade depression and anxiety, there was another thing to wonder: What kind of mental health care will I tangle with in Germany?

I’d heard rumors I could only get St. John’s Wort with a prescription. And that not all insurance covers mental health care. No to mention the fact that I often lacked the words to describe the situation in my head in English. How would I do imparting them in German?

tongue tied

Ich kann Deutsch sprechen. Nur nicht sehr gut.

I decided to stock up on St. John’s Wort, and worry about it when I got there. Since I’d quit drinking I’d had very few problems and was only seeing a counselor every three weeks or so. When we said goodbye I thought maybe I wouldn’t need a shrink in Germany.

Fast forward to my post on expat depression. Turns out it is very real and I could use some help in that department after all.

The nice thing? The rumors about St. John’s Wort were partially true. It was the only natural medicine that doctors could prescribe and would be covered by your insurance. But you could still buy it at the local pharmacy over the counter.

And the insurance thing: We got public insurance after a colleague of Sante’s said private wasn’t such a great idea. Once you chose private, it was hard to get back on public care. What I found out later is that private insurance often doesn’t cover mental health care. But public insurance does, because it is in their best interests to keep you healthy because they can’t get rid of you.

(Private insurance is incredibly cheap for people who are healthy, which is why it’s appealing to young people. But if you’re sick, they’re gonna make you pay. And pay. And pay. And then probably tell you they don’t want to insure you. You know, like U.S. insurance. Or so I’ve heard.)

dont hold back

Don’t hold back. Tell me how you really feel.

So after I decided that self-managing my depression wasn’t going to cut it, I was lucky enough to have a friend who knew an English-speaking psychiatrist. And my public insurance decided I would get 50 (!) sessions. This year. After which I can reapply.

Now there are things I love about my therapist. She’s really helping me in ways my other counselor never did. I’m making progress. But there are other things that just strike me as odd, and I think it’s only because we’re from two different cultures. I thought I would share a little about it:

1. Puzzlement at the Internet. I could make this sweeping generalization about most of Germany, really. The Internet just isn’t that big of a deal here. When I told her about how I made a living, she was stunned.

“Why would anyone pay you to do that?” she wondered out loud when I said I wrote blog posts for companies so customers could engage with them or just be entertained.

She was bemused when I expressed my frustration at how impossible it was to find out if a restaurant was any good here. No Yelp reviews. She suggested I just ask my neighbors where a good restaurant was.

I think the funniest thing was when I found out Netflix was coming to Germany. I told her excitedly, because hello? Isn’t this rad? She just looked at me and said, “I get my movies from the library.”

Coming from a place where technology is king and the Internet makes everything easier (when was the last time you had to call a business to ask their hours?), Germany is such a trip. Yes, some businesses have webpages, but not many.

And talking to my therapist about things like that just reminds me how different we truly are and maybe, just maybe how frickin’ wired I am to this computer.

internet addicted much

You think?

2. Odd language choices. I speak English. I learned Spanish but can speak only limited restaurant Spanglish these days. (Necesitamos cubiertos, por favor!)

I used to be quite good at American Sign Language, but if I had a conversation with a deaf person, I would more than likely unknowingly insult them. I can muddle my way through some German now, thanks to living here.

Contrast that with my doctor, who treats patients not only in her native German, but also English and Spanish. She’s brilliant. Her vocabulary is excellent and she speaks very well.

But she chooses some of the strangest words, and it wasn’t until speaking with her that I truly understood how important connotation actually is in a language.

For instance, last week she told me she was “obsessed” with me because of certain characteristics I had and she was curious to see how everything would come together.

If anyone in the U.S. told me they were obsessed with me, I’d be on my way to the police station for a restraining order. No joke. But I knew that wasn’t how she meant it. Really. Crap now this song is in my head.

Sante and I were chatting about it, and he thought maybe it was like when he has an issue at work he gets obsessed with. Or more like fascinated in a professional way. Either way, things like that happen occasionally and it is stunning how language and our brains work.

3. Decidedly German suggestions to solve problems. Germans are direct. They say what they mean. There is no need to beat around the bush or worry about tact or hurt feelings. Everything is dealt with and then it’s over and we all go to the biergarten to sit in the sun together. No worries!

Part of me adores this about the Germans because I have a habit of being rather direct and sometimes harsh, even thought I don’t mean to be. Did I mention I’ve got German ancestry?

But I’ve also got British ancestry, which means my god, I simply must find a nice way to put this … or perhaps I won’t put it any way at all. I’ll just be passive-aggressive until you understand what I’m trying to convey. It’s an odd combination, I’ll admit. So while sometimes I’m very comfortable with the directness, other times I cringe.

Like the time I told her about someone I was practicing German with, who after a few meetings I realized might be more interested in me than I was in him.

My solution to the issue was to just avoid him, but I was lamenting the loss of good German practice. This guy and I would talk about everything from washing hair to Middle East politics. In German. Albeit not very eloquently, but we got our points across.

im intellectual

Because, you know, I’m an intellectual.

Her suggestion was this: “Why don’t you just say to him, ‘Are you interested in me sexually? because I don’t want to have sex with you.’ ”

My jaw dropped. There was a few seconds of silence and then I just laughed.

“No way. I’m sorry but that is just way to German. I can’t do that.”

She laughed and agreed that perhaps it wasn’t how things are done in the U.S. But maybe how I did things in the States weren’t always the best ways, so I’m keeping my mind open to her suggestions.

I’m still not saying that to a classmate though.

4. Clubs are the answer to life. If there is one thing that bothers me about my therapist, it’s that she is constantly puzzled by how much time I spend alone. She obviously gets that I’m an introvert, but still she is always suggesting this club or that one.

Verein, they’re called. And they are big in German culture. Everything is a club. That radish festival I went to? That was put on by my friend’s shooting club. I went to choir club. And knitting club.

There are volleyball clubs. My husband belongs to a mountain bike club. Of course hiking clubs are big here. And gardening clubs.  I guess I did belong to a book club in California, so it’s not completely foreign to me.

But every week we talk, she is bringing up some other thing to try. This club or that class and I am resisting. This is where my American-ness really comes through. I don’t like organized anythings.

no thanks

Don’t box me in!

I love spending time with friends. Hell, I even have a regular weekly date with my friend Ashley, so I’m not opposed to recurring rituals. But a club? I am highly suspicious and uncomfortable, anxious even, about this whole business.

But, hell, I’m trying. And maybe the fact that we occasionally get together with friends and grill could be a club? I just bought a game. Maybe we could have a board game club. Or I could try to start another book club. Then I think I’d be acclimated enough for her.

Vacationing in another country is a fantastic way to get to know a culture. Shopping in their markets, checking out cemeteries, sampling local fare.

But living in another country isn’t just about getting to know a culture, which before I moved was really what I thought I would be doing here. I’d live as an American would, all the while observing and reporting on the local culture, never really absorbing it, like an undercover cop or something.

But that’s not how it works: Living in another country is about learning to coexist and even adopt different ways of doing things. And seeing a German therapist is helping me do that in a way I didn’t really realize. And it’s frickin’ fantastic.

Read all of my expat stuff here.

 Photo Credit: Geoffrey Kehrig, my dear friend Nicole DeRung, Natalie, my dear friend Ashley

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Olivia July 13, 2014 at 4:54 am

I love reading about the cultural differences you experience! They blow me away, from the toilet having a separate room from the shower to being so blunt it seems.

The suggestion to ask your male friend if he’s interested in you sexually made me lol too.


Olivia July 13, 2014 at 5:20 am

Oh and my own story… I did a photo session a few months ago with a couple who met on a cruise ship. The husband was from Bulgaria but knows a lot of English now. I was doing maternity photos and I told them to “spoon” and he didn’t know what I meant. I began to laugh and so did his wife and as she explained I told him, “Have Melissa explain forking later.”



Rebecca A. Watson July 14, 2014 at 1:48 pm

Hee hee … spooning is a great concept, but probably funny to some. Wonder what it’s called in other languages/cultures?


Michael March 25, 2016 at 8:33 pm

Rebecca, you seem to be a highly sensitive person (HSP).
-> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highly_sensitive_person
HSPs like you often suffer from (often hidden) pyroluria, a metabolic disorder. Me, too.

Because of the fact that pyroluria can cause anxiety and depression, you should consider taking zinc and B6.
(I recommend P-5-P, the active form of B6.)


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