Shall I take my clothes off now?

I was living in Germany and I had a new boss. Time to move desks.

Soll ich mich jetzt umziehen?

My boss laughed so hard that she fell on the floor and wept.

By adding ‘mich’ I had changed the question from ‘Shall I move now?’ to ‘Shall I take my clothes off now?’.

Oops…

+++

I was 22 when I moved to Germany from the UK. I was working at a TV company and went to Cologne for six months on a graduate placement.

I had never been to Cologne before. I had no friends, no favourite hang-outs, non-fluent language skills, no colleagues that I knew from before, no support network on hand – nothing.

I was starting from zero. And it was really scary.

But I got lucky (a great flatmate, fun colleagues), and I tried hard to improve my German. I made a bunch of new friends, learnt about a new city and a new culture, and (this was 2006) experienced an incredible World Cup. By the time I left, I was sad to go and I’ve been back almost every year since.

So with a bit of luck and a bit of work, starting from zero worked out ok. Phew! But offering to get naked for my boss was not my only mistake.

+++

Another unfortunate incident happened at a house party a few weeks later. My flatmate told me the day after that I had really offended a girl I was talking to – turns out not all Germans are tuned into to English sarcasm, so she took one of my ‘jokes’ a little too seriously.

Oops…

But it was fascinating to be an outsider. As an outsider you can observe much more acutely what’s happening around you.

Plus people expect the outsider to make mistakes (like I did at the party). But I could patch it up because the outsider also has a good excuse for getting things wrong (heh heh).

+++

One day I was on the train, reading my book. I’d started the book before moving to Germany and was keen to finish it.

I got a few funny looks, but hey ho – I didn’t really understand what the people around me were saying so it didn’t trouble me.

Only when I got home did I realise my mistake – I’d been reading a biography of Winston Churchill.

Oops…

+++

Changing your location – a new place, a new job, a new career – changes your context. You probably shouldn’t offer to get naked at work. It’s not ok to be sarcastic if the person you’re talking to doesn’t get sarcasm. And it’s not ok for some people if you read a Churchill biography on the train in Germany.

But each of these mistakes was fun, and the whole experience of living and working abroad was formative. I’d recommend it to anyone. And if I can offer three things I learnt from my time in Cologne, they would be these:

  1. Starting from zero is perfectly possible
  2. Being the outsider is fun
  3. Changing your circumstances changes everything

I’ve tried to keep those things in mind over the last few years.

Perhaps they’re useful for you too.

So go forth, and offer to get naked.

Author: toddmgreen

I really like making internet projects. I work on apps, games and websites at a TV company. I write stuff, make stuff, and accidentally break stuff. You should probably follow me on Twitter - @toddmgreen.

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