I don't remember where I first discovered Stephanie's artwork - she's been featured all over the blogosphere and published in several books and magazines - but her signature style drew me to her blog where I found a kindred spirit. In fact her responses to my interview questions completely resonated with me down to the tiny details - like missing cranberry juice! (Seriously, Rest of the World, how are we Americans supposed to treat our urinary tract infections without cranberry juice!) She's been living in Germany for the last 15 years and now with her German artist husband and her two beautiful girls she juggles her studio work, her ETSY shop, her 12 countries in 12 months project and her teaching schedule. Her upcoming e-course Creative Courage is a practical guide that will help you clarify your own unique path and give you the tools you need to start making your goals real. It starts January 9 and you can sign up here.
1. How did you come to land in Germany/Munich?
I came and stayed for love :) Way back when, while I was studying Art back in the US, I met a German physics student who was working on his Ph.D. We fell in love, got married, and moved to Germany. We started out in Berlin, then moved to Heidelberg because of his job, then moved back to Berlin so that I could complete my Master's degree. After several years, that relationship ended - although we are still friends - and I met my husband Florian, who is also German and an artist. In 2005, we both completed our studies in Berlin and moved to his hometown of Munich.
2. Did you plan to stay as long as you have?
I had no idea. When I came over, I was 24 years old, fresh out of university, and I had two suitcases full of my belongings. Completely naive, but ready for adventure. I remember thinking that the food tasted more intensely in Europe, everything seemed richer and more exciting.
3. How was your language acquisition? Did you learn German when you arrived or did you already speak the language?
I spoke about 10 words of German when I arrived. After one month of living in former East Berlin (where at that time most people didn't speak any English in the shops), I realized that I HAD to learn German if I was going to be able to communicate with others in any kind of coherent way. Even with friends who spoke some English, at dinners and parties they would tire fairly quickly and start speaking German again. I tend to talk a lot, so I had a strong motivation to learn German quickly.
I went to a private language school where I took daily intensive, immersion classes in German - about 3 hours per day plus homework. We didn't have much money, so I think my language school was one of the cheapest in Berlin. This meant that the classes were really huge - about 25 students - and full of people from literally all over the world. From Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, Iraq, Brazil, Malaysia, Bosnia, Iceland, and so on. I think I was one of the only Americans, but it was good because I was forced to speak German with the other students even in the breaks.
4. If you are not a native speaker, do you have any funny stories about language errors?
I learned German such a long time ago, so I can't remember any really funny stories about specific errors at the moment... But what was difficult for me (and sometimes still is) - was getting used to the extreme German directness. I remember being at a dinner party and one woman said very loudly proclaimed in German, "Well I don't like Americans because they are always fake and you never know what they think about you." This woman knew that I was an American and her comment was somewhat directed at me, but I was so flabbergasted that I had no idea even how to respond, especially in German!
I'm from Tennessee, and with my Southern upbringing, I was completely unprepared for situations like this. In the meantime, I have learned how to be more direct - and to take things people say about the US or American culture less personally. Sometimes I agree with them too! My German is fluent these days, so I can get involved in a discussion, rather than just helplessly sitting there not knowing what to say.
5. Tell me about one of your lowest moments?
When we made the first move from Berlin to Heidelberg, I didn't have any friends, it was the coldest winter in years, and I had to wait a couple of months before any language classes were starting. I spent some hard weeks there when I wondered what on earth I was doing. We still had very little money, no real furniture in the apartment... just an old black and white TV that played German movies in the afternoon. It was kind of depressing. But finally spring arrived, and I enrolled at the University in Heidelberg to take more German classes, I met lots of fellow international students, and life improved dramatically.
6. When did you realize where you are home? Or are you not there yet?
I think being an ex-pat you are always somewhere in between. I still identify myself as an American because I grew up in the American culture for the first 25 years of my life. The way I talk, the way I think is still very American. However, I do like having the perspective of viewing my home culture from abroad. It puts many things in perspective. And the longer I am here, I feel more "Europeanized" at least partly. In 10 years, I will have lived for equal amounts of time in both cultures. We'll see how I feel then!
In the end, it feels to me like things are becoming more and more global and international. I see and hear many, many Americans in Europe, and so many Europeans have visited the States. International travel has become very commonplace, and now with the speed of the Internet and other media to communicate - I feel like we are all very connected these days, more than ever before.
7. What do you miss most about the United States?
Cranberry juice! Well, actually you can get that here now, but it is expensive. I miss going out for huge, decadent American breakfasts at diners for an occasional indulgence. I miss the relaxed way that people communicate and make small talk in an easy manner, even in shops and with strangers. And of course I miss family and friends.
I love New York, San Francisco, the beautiful national parks, and there are still so many gorgeous places I've never visited in the States. I'd love to travel with my husband and kids through the US on a monumental road trip.
8. What are some of the things you don't know how you lived without before you moved to Germany?
I truly love being able to walk everywhere to do my shopping, to bring my kids to school, and so on. The bread and pastries here are amazing (although I know we're all supposed to be eating healthy, low carb, and gluten-free these days...)
9. Are you raising your kids bilingual? How's that going?
Yes, I speak English to my kids - but they usually answer me in German. We try to read lots of English books and have English videos, but it is difficult to offset the German kindergarten and German-speaking environment. So we are working on it, and I hope as they get older, they will understand and value the importance of English. I also hope that they will go on a school or university exchange in an English speaking country one day.
10. Are you still "the American" or do you blend in at this point?
I will probably always be "the American" among my German friends, but I also feel that I blend in pretty well too. We moved around a lot when I was a kid, so maybe I am just used to always making new friends and being a little bit of an outsider. I think it also helps that I have always lived in larger, multi-cultural cities in Germany where most people come from somewhere else too.
11. Can you reflect on any cultural differences that was challenging to navigate or led to a funny situation or misunderstanding?
One thing that drives me crazy in Germany is that you usually have to install your own kitchen and light fixtures when you move into a new apartment. The Germans defend this practice as "everyone has their own taste" and you can be much more individual in your apartment style this way... which is perhaps true, but it is kind of a pain, especially right at the beginning when you are just moving into a new place.
12. How has your experience colored your work?
My travels - especially my travel project this year 12 Countries in 12 Months - are most certainly a big influence on my artwork right now. All of my latest collages are a result of this project, and I have lots of ideas for new collages based on materials and sketches I've gathered so far. I can't wait to get started on these new mixed media collages too.
13. What lessons can you draw from the whole experience?
Adventure is good, mind-expanding, and if you ever have the chance to live abroad for a time, you should go for it! Despite the challenges and a few hard times at the beginning, I wouldn't change a thing and I definitely do not regret my decision to move to Germany. At the moment, I'm happy in Europe and I appreciate all of the different cultures and travel opportunities here!
Thank you Stephanie! Make sure you spend some time on her blog and ETSY site. And for the love of strudel treat yourself to her seven week e-course Creative Courage.