As a German student living in Ireland for the best part of three years, it took me a while to realize that my Erasmus year at NUI Galway not only made me a more independent and open-minded person; gradually it also improved my perception of my home country. While visiting Berlin with my Irish boyfriend, it dawned on me that living standards and social security are definitely higher in Germany.
When I applied for the exchange year as an undergrad, I couldn’t get away quick enough. I was fed up with the infamous German bureaucracy, the anonymity of big cities and everyone’s stereotypical “Germanness”- first and foremost my own. I took my conveniently located and affordable apartment, my student grant and free third level education for granted, and became unsatisfied and restless. Although I met plenty of foreign and Irish students who had to pay for college and their stay abroad, I still didn’t understand people’s enthusiasm for everything German. I spoke as little German as possible and when I started to speak with an Irish accent, I began pretending to be Irish when abroad, and asked my friends to stop introducing me as “Tina from Germany”, a fact they think I should be proud of. My Irish friends are still puzzled by my lack of interest in German history and current affairs and wonder why I don’t talk to every German tourist on the street. They mention people they know in Munich and are almost disappointed that I don’t know them. It seems to make no difference that I’m from the opposite side of the country.
Initially, I had mixed feelings about bringing my boyfriend to Berlin. I don’t know the city well and I was afraid to fail miserably as a tour guide. However, researching things to do, I discovered lots of interesting sights I haven’t been to myself. I really enjoyed the city centre walk and the bus tour in English, maybe because they were designed for foreigners and gave a good overview without going into too much detail. My generation was no longer taught to feel responsible for the past in school, we were nevertheless bombarded with dates and facts, which we forgot as soon as the last exam was over. Most Irish people on the other hand have a fair idea of Irish history and politics.
The best part of the trip was a Trabi Safari. Trabis are flimsy looking, but surprisingly robust cars produced in the GDR. Although I was born after the wall came down, I feel nostalgic every time I see one of these cult-cars. Before my boyfriend remarked on it, I hadn’t noticed that the buildings in East Berlin are much more square looking than those in the Western part of the city. There are still architectural, economic and cultural differences between East and West. When telling people I’m from Germany, I always make the point that I’m east German, a distinction the Irish, many of whom are proud of their home county, tend to understand better than other visitors.
My boyfriend loved the cheap but high-quality multi-cultural restaurants and the variety of cakes and rolls in bakery shops. He was seriously impressed with the frequency and punctuality of all modes of public transport. In most parts of the country, but especially in the capital, you can get everywhere by train, bus and subway, and changing from one to the other is no problem. The transport systems in Galway and even Dublin do not remotely compare to that. The massive train stations are a bit overwhelming at first, but as someone who doesn’t drive, I felt very empowered.
For me, Germany’s main advantage is the high level of social security. Unemployed people are far from being rich, but in my opinion nobody who seeks help has to be homeless there. It took me years to understand Irish people’s obsession with owning a house; unlike in Germany, well-kept apartments in Ireland are rare. The Irish rental market is privatised and on top of paying ridiculous rents, tenants have few rights. At home, neither my parents nor my grandparents own a house; they live in the same apartments for years and don’t intend to buy it. This system makes it easier for people to move and although the minimum wage in Germany is slightly lower than in Ireland, people don’t have to spent most of their money on paying a mortgage. As a student, my health insurance contribution is comparatively low and most medical treatments and prescription medications, including a GP visit in Ireland, are free.
My main reasons for living in Ireland are still the stunning landscape, Irish arts and first and foremost the friendliness of the people. By now I have more good friends here than I ever had in Germany. Nevertheless, most people we met on our holiday were very nice and spoke at least some English. Unlike the small East-German town I’m from, Berlin is pretty international and one can get around without speaking much German.
Ireland is a great country to live in, as long as you have a well-paid job and don’t get seriously ill. If the government wants to keep young people in the country, it has to offer us a future that makes working, living and perhaps raising a family here more attractive. Otherwise, many of us will eventually move to countries with better living-standards, even if we don’t really want to.