Do not be mistaken, I still would love to travel the world. Or at least part of the world, mostly the countries inhabited by Muslims (well, you either are a Middle Eastern Studies major, or you are not), but places like Canada or the US are still on my list as well. If my contract does not get extended next year, I consider it very likely that I will take some time off to visit at least some of the countries I have been dreaming about for years. But for now, I prefer working abroad.
Working abroad was not a conscious choice for me. Sure, I did apply for jobs abroad, and I accepted my job in Hamburg fully knowing that it would involve a move to another country. But I would have been just as happy with an offer from the company around the corner (or even better, one of the Ministeries just a stone’s throw away). I never imagined myself abroad long-term, and yet here I am. 15 months later I am still in Hamburg, with no plans to go anywhere else in the foreseeable future.
Some other time I will get into the details of the darker side of living abroad. For now, I would like to concentrate on the good things. Not because I am a naturally optimistic person, but because I believe living abroad for a while is good for everybody. It makes you a more tolerant and flexible person – or at least that is what it does to most of us. In today’s polarized world, there can never be enough people who have seen life beyond their own comfort zone.
Travelling the world is great, working abroad is even better. Staying in one country for an extended period of time allows you to develop a deeper understand of a country and its people. To be sure, when you are travelling through a country you can also meet locals, make an occasional friend or two. But that does not compare to the deeper friendships that can only develop after a considerable amount of time spent together. Understanding a culture that goes beyond ‘lunch is the main meal of the day in Germany’, and ‘on King’s Day in the Netherlands we all wear orange’ is not something that develops in two or three weeks’ time, it takes months or even years. Staying in the same city, in the same country, allows you to acquire such an understanding.
As a historian, I am always looking for new stories. Coming here a little over a year ago, I was not particularly impressed. At first sight, Hamburg does not seem to offer the historian too much: pretty much the entire city center was destroyed during the war. But once settled somewhere, you start noticing things you maybe otherwise would not have. The stolpersteinen under my feet, the WW II memorial at Stephansplatz, the plaque in Planten un Blomen, another memorial around the corner from where I live, several bunkers. There is history everywhere around me, but passing through you only notice the obvious: the rathaus, Neuengamme, the museum ships in the harbour. But when these sources are exhausted, you are forced to look beyond them. That is when you end up at the Fuhlsbüttel prison, a lesser known concentration camp, or when you discover the Jewish cemenery at Ohlsdorf. Did you know there is a Commonwealth War Cementery as well? I probably would not have, had I only had a few nights to spend in Hamburg.
Living in a city for a larger period of time allows you to cover more than just the main sights. Had Hamburg just been a city trip, I would have walked around the Alster, maybe went on a boat tour around Landungsbrücken, spent an evening at the Reeperbahn and strolled through the Speicherstadt. But it is unlikely that I would have gone to a lesser known museum like the Archeological museum in Harburg, which is somewhat outside the city center. Instead I would have gone to the Kunsthalle or the Maritime Museum, like so many others do. I would never have gone to the Stadtpark for grilling, because I was too busy in my rush to see everything there is to see in just three or four days. But as it is, I do happen to live abroad, and I do happen to be based in Hamburg. Being here long-term, I hope to develop something of an understanding of the history, present and future of this city that is so both much deeper and completer than any world traveller could ever hope to get, because they are simply not long enough in the same place for that. And that is why I prefer working abroad over travelling the world. For now at least.