I’m not a massive fan of moving house. (I mean, really, who is? It’s a lot of work!) However, I have moved plenty of times in my life and in particular, I have had four different homes abroad – two different flats in Japan, one in Slovakia and one in Germany. When I read a recent Kiki and Tea post about lessons from the places you’ve lived I immediately had so many thoughts about my different homes that I knew I had to write a post about it.
Living in Fuse in eastern Osaka
My first day in Fuse (pronounced more like foo-seh than how you just read it in your head) is etched into my memory. It was meant to be the first part of a big adventure, teaching English in Japan, but I had landed after an overnight flight from a Perth winter into a highly humid Osakan day, walked for miles to get to the new apartment, and I was hungry and exhausted. The search for food (not knowing more than about five words of Japanese) was somewhat tricky and I felt disgusted that we ended up having some truly awful KFC fries for dinner.
Fortunately, it was all up from there. The flat was on the fourth floor, but labelled the fifth floor, because four is an unlucky number in Japan – it sounds the same as death. That did sometimes worry me – it was still the fourth floor, right? During my stay in Fuse, there was a small earthquake – small enough that most of my students the following day had to say they hadn’t even felt it – but I completely freaked out for a day or two. Until I learnt not to freak out.
It was here in Fuse that I learnt I absolutely loved sleeping on a futon on top of freshly laid tatami mats. Best sleep ever! And I learnt to walk and ride my bike all through the narrow streets with sometimes no idea of where I was going and very little ability to ask anyone, and yet I always survived and eventually found what I wanted. I’d been worried, before moving to Japan, that my lack of language ability would make life difficult – it didn’t, although as my Japanese improved, I did love being able to say a few more things to the locals around me. The locals weren’t always that interested in talking to me, or perhaps more correctly, they probably wanted to talk to me but were kind of terrified by having a gaijin (foreigner) in their building, and scared of making mistakes if they spoke to me in English – I came to understand this about the Japanese over time.
Moving to Amagatsuji in Nara
Because the Fuse apartment was organised by the school I was teaching at, it was unnecessarily expensive, and so in my second year in Japan I moved to a smaller flat in Amagatsuji. If I thought the locals were scared of a foreigner in Fuse, they were downright terrified of me in Amagatsuji because it was not a place where foreigners lived.
It was a tiny place on a local train stop near Nara (and equally close to the school I was teaching at in eastern Osaka, just in the opposite direction). The distance from the train station to my apartment was much shorter this time, so my bike didn’t get as much love, but I enjoyed that walk every day and can still picture everything I passed by, including the little post office, the supermarket with the fish song playing on repeat, the vending machine where I would grab some alcohol on a Friday night (so convenient), and speaking of convenient, the convenience store of course, which quite regularly provided a snack for dinner (the beauty of Japan being that a convenience store snack was often extremely healthy!).
Here I learnt that I loved blending in with local life as much as possible. There were no other ex-pats here, and it led to me spending much more time with my Japanese friends than my fellow ex-pats. I also learnt that you can actually live in a tiny apartment and still be perfectly happy. Our entire apartment (I shared with a boyfriend) was just over twenty square metres in area (probably not much bigger than whatever room you happen to be sitting in as you read this) but that was totally fine! We slept on futons on the floor, folded them up every morning, and sat on the ground for pretty much everything. Who needs furniture?
A communist era flat in Bratislava, Slovakia
I was devastated to leave Japan, yet very excited to then end several months of travel by moving in to a communist era flat in Bratislava. This one was on the ninth floor and there were no superstitions about the number. I did learn very early on to say nine in Slovak, because people would always ask me which floor I was on when I got into the lift on my way home – you could only push one button at once so we would have to agree who was living on the lowest floor and push that one first. The conversations tended to end there, but I was OK with that, as I made some other wonderful Slovak friends through the school and my classes.
Given that socialism had well and truly failed by the time I got there (2003), living in this typical Cold War style apartment block was a thrill for me, rather than a cause for concern. It wasn’t beautiful, and the neighbouring area wasn’t beautiful, but from my balcony I had a view which stretched to a corner where Slovakia, Austria and Hungary met. To this day, I find that amazing, having grown up in a country where a border just meant that the ocean was there.
There were enough reminders of Iron Curtain times to help me learn I was glad to have been born in Australia, and yet the friends I made of a similar age and older often spoke wistfully about how life was simpler during socialist times. Yes, they had more opportunity now, but with opportunity came the opposite as well. Well-educated friends who had secure jobs before the fall of the Wall had now made career changes to much less interesting positions with multinational companies just so they could afford to pay the rent, even though they were sharing with so many friends that they had turned the living room into a bedroom too.
Learning my duties in Heilbronn, Germany
While in many ways, moving to Germany was the least surprising of my moves abroad, it was also the most difficult in terms of fitting in to a home. In Japan and Slovakia, I had at least been able to begin in apartments sourced by the school, furnished and ready to go. In Germany, I had to find my own, and discovered that most of them are leased without even a kitchen being built in, so it was a much more complex and expensive matter, not to mention that most landlords weren’t keen on having transient-looking English teachers – a lot of Germans will rent the same apartment for many, many years, and that obviously wasn’t in my plan.
But eventually I moved into a pleasant flat (overlooking a petrol station, but still) in a suburban part of Heilbronn, within a reasonable walking distance (or a bus ride) from the city centre, and close to the Neckar River with a great path to walk or cycle along. The flat was pleasant, but most of the neighbours weren’t, and I managed to break numerous house rules without meaning to. I guess this taught me a lot about German culture and the importance of researching cultural norms when you’re living somewhere new. It also made me very appreciative of the delightful Herr Mantsch of the ground floor who always talked to me, no matter what.
The big difference in this particular home abroad was that I could actually speak the local language. This made a lot of things much easier, and I certainly appreciated all those hours of German study throughout high school and university (even though it still took me months to feel like I could speak to anyone without clamming up!). Being able to read the local papers and signs helped me explore the local area more easily and I really felt like I knew the neighbourhood well after two and a half years there.
Your different homes abroad
Writing this post has made me feel incredibly sentimental. I definitely left a little piece of my heart in each of my different homes abroad, and I feel inspired to return to each of the apartments to show my son all the places I have lived! And to remind him how lucky he is to live in a comparatively larger house here in Australia. With very nice neighbours!
Where have you lived abroad? Would you return there? What did you learn? Please tell me all about it in the comments (or blog about it, if you can!).