If you live in Germany, you probably work in Germany. Unless you’re the outdoorsy, competitive, gourmet type and actually enjoy living in the woods so you can challenge the local Wildschwein (wild pigs) for truffles, you probably need a job so that you don’t have to do just that. Work is paramount in Germany and the Germans take their professions quite seriously. This makes perfect sense when one thinks of the not untrue stereotype of Germans being highly skilled and efficient. They don’t just make things, they make fantastic things, and they do it better and faster. I once saw a guy here on the side of the road build a BMW from a pile of sticks and a Post-It note. Not only did he do it in 13 minutes, when he took off, there was no exhaust cloud as it runs purely on German self-satisfaction and, save for smug smiles, has zero emissions. Inversely, I once changed one of my Chevy’s tires on the side of the road back in the States. Not only did it take me an hour but, as soon as I was finished, the car promptly exploded into a fiery black cloud of diesel and irony.
The trait of being skilled and diligent workers, inherent in German culture, goes back so far that it was immortalized in the 17th century Brothers Grimm tale of Schneewittchen (Snow White & the Seven Dwarves) where the industrious dwarves got up each morning to toil in the mines. So focused were they on their work that poor Snow White was left alone, unguarded, and so was poisoned by her wicked stepmother. In addition to Sneezy, Grumpy, and the rest, they should have employed an eighth named “Nanny”.
Work (Arbeit) in Deutschland is much the same as it is in other countries. You have a boss, colleagues, and a sometimes long commute. That is, unless you are an American and work from home like I do. These two ingredients create a recipe that is about as rife with injury and laughter as any other famous slapstick comedic duo: Laurel & Hardy. Abbott & Costello. Sado & Masochism might actually be more accurate, however, since not only is the thought of two leather-clad weirdos slapping each other funny, only the thrills outweigh the pain. Or vice versa. I wouldn’t know. The one plus side is that since I do work from home, no one in my family will be poisoned by a door-to-door witch peddling toxic apples; I am Nanny Dwarf.
The story of how I came to be self-employed in Germany is a simple one. Upon arrival, I enrolled in an intensive German language course and, thinking that I would be fluent in a matter of weeks, I naively began sending out resumes. My naivety wasn’t that I wouldn’t get any interviews, but that when I did, that I would be able to freely converse with my interviewers and win them over with my charm and humor. Things did not quite happen that way. I did get calls for interviews, but that is where my happy tale took a turn down a much darker and, shall we say Grimm, path…
It turns out that learning German quickly is impossible. For me, it turns out that learning German at all, is impossible. Upon my first (and last) interview, I sat at a conference table flanked by two serious looking Germans who began firing indecipherable word bullets directly at my head. Shellshocked, I had no time to duck and was hit directly. Apparently their ammunition were brilliantly German-engineered smart bullets (anti-smart bullets, as it turns out) as they had the ability to make me act like an idiot. When their firing ceased, they folded their hands and calmly awaited my response. Being a non-German speaker, I replied the only way I knew how; a long and uncomfortable stare punctuated by ill-placed laughter and panic-induced inappropriate phrases. Here is an actual excerpt of the interview:
Serious German #1: “Herr Geren, blah blah blah blah blah blah”?
Serious German #2: “Herr Geren, nein. Blah blah blah bleebity-bloob”.
Me: “Oh… Ja. Entschuldigung. Können Sie bitte ihre Anlage wiederholen? Mein Deutsch ist Specht”. (Oh… Yes. Excuse me. Can you please repeat your equipment? My German is woodpecker).
In my defense, those unfortunate words that I chose sound very similar to what I meant to say. I still have no idea what they said, but judging from their reactions to what I said, I may as well have stripped off my shirt and made underarm fart sounds to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. What I did get, luckily for me, was an email a few weeks later from someone in Canada who wanted me to work for them, on a subcontract basis, online. That initial contact turned into several, and so here I sit, a hapless victim of fate, working from home and typing away at a laptop…about working from home. Oh, universe. I hope that you get loads of pleasure by weaving your ironic tapestries of human suffering, you sadistic seamstress, you.
I could go on, but I won’t – not yet anyway – as there are worse tales to come. In honor of the newly added miniature minion of maternal machination, there are eight of them, to be exact. Now might be a good time to grab yourself a cup of stale coffee, adjust the lumbar on your office chair to “alliteration”, and fetch your mental pickaxe; you are about to accompany me on a journey through the menacing mines of making money from my meager mansion. “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Home We Go”!
1). YOU WILL NOT HAVE A MEAL SCHEDULE.
When you have a normal job, you have set meal times. You must eat breakfast before work (or on the way), you have a set lunch time, and dinner is usually eaten once you arrive back home. When you work from home, you tend to eat whenever you make the time. For me, this usually happens one of two ways: 1). Breakfast: Sitting in front of my laptop while spewing crumbs of granola into my keyboard or , 2). Lunch: Standing over the sink while eating a Hot Pocket and spewing chunks of pastry-wrapped cheese lava onto the kitchen window. Dinner is usually not a problem as Eve is home by then and we typically have dinner together…after I clean both the office and the kitchen. Another downside of working from home is that it negates any deniability. Of course it was me. Who else would it be? I think it’s high time that we have a kid so that I can deflect the blame and not have to clean. For some reason, any mess – no matter how trivial – that was created by a middle-aged man is disgusting, while the near nuclear-destruction detonated by a baby is somehow “adorable”.
2). YOUR WARDROBE WILL DEVOLVE.
When I worked in the States, I would shave every day and would dress myself impeccably in pressed slacks and a button-down shirt. Once I started working from home, because I didn’t interact with clients face-to-face, I slowly became less concerned with my appearance. It is now often the case that I will open the door for DHL with a five-day beard and wearing yogurt-stained pajamas. Because I live in Germany, sometimes the couture du jour (yes, I know that’s French) is Lederhosen. Though not particularly comfortable, they are made of leather and therefore resist the constant chafing of my frayed and therefore sandpaper-like “pleather” chair better than cotton or polyester. Trust me, you do not want me answering the door wearing what are essentially open-bottomed pajama-chaps. I don’t even like looking at my butt, so I can only imagine the trauma experienced by others. Okay, I can; After the “incident”, my mother-in-law wouldn’t look below my waist now even if I said that my feet were on fire. These little lessons are how you train people to call first before showing up.
3). YOUR MORNING COMMUTE IS QUICKER, BUT OFTEN MORE DANGEROUS.
I lived in Atlanta for eight years and always had a lengthy commute. I once had a job in which I had to drive into the city from the suburbs, a commute that often took one and half to two hours. Though aggravating as hell, it wasn’t all that dangerous as every car moves at a snail’s pace and even if you did have a fender-bender, at 3 mph it would cause neither damage nor injury. At the very least it would break up the monotony. My morning commute now is all of a whopping 25 foot walk from my bedroom to my office and, though I no longer have a forehead vein threatening to burst from anger, I still loudly bellow curses: My morning commute is strewn with various dogs toys, and their large owner, one of which I always trip over and so end up flinging coffee and expletives across the walls before landing on the floor with a resounding and undramatic “Squeak”!
4). PEOPLE THINK THAT WORKING FROM HOME IS NOT A REAL JOB.
When you work from home, everyone will assume that you can’t really be doing anything that important and so, aren’t busy. I mean, who works from home? Surely only unwashed porn site operators and other fiends. Friends and relatives will drop by unannounced with various, seemingly innocuous, questions like “How are you?” and “Why are you wearing that Viking helmet”? What they really want, however, are answers to their only real questions: “Is he operating an adult website?” and “Can he pay the bills with that? I’ve seen his butt. It’s not that great”. I can tell you that answering the door while wearing “peekaboo” pajamas (or leather shorts) – with dubious stains on them – will not help your cause.
5). YOU HAVE NO FIXED HOURS FOR WORK.
Most people have fixed hours that they work, usually 9:00 to 5:00. You, on the other hand, work from home and, because your house is your office, you have no boundaries nor schedule. Your home office is your office, of course, but so is your kitchen, your living room, and, of course, your bathroom. It is not infrequent that Eve will awaken at two in the morning, find me missing from the bed, only to discover me on the toilet, laptop perched on my thighs, answering emails. Again, this will not assuage the fear that you aren’t master-minding some site with a name like “Tasty Big Butts.com”.
Going back a step, every car’s license plate in Germany has the abbreviation at its beginning of the town that the registered owner lives in. Larger cities have a single letter, like “M” for those living in Munich. Medium sized towns like Mannheim have “MA”. Small towns like Mergentheim have three letters, in our case, “TBB”. This is short for Tauberbischofsheim, a nearby town that is even smaller than Mergentheim. Regarding the lucrativeness of working from home, should someone – say, an anonymous (yet brilliant and modest) American – own a site named Tasty Big Butts.com, the subliminal marketing of having said site’s abbreviation on every car would most likely increase that site’s revenue greatly. Naturally, I wouldn’t know. I’m sure that my newly jewel-encrusted Lederhosen are only a coincidence.
6). VACATIONS DON’T EXIST FOR YOU.
Vacations are nice, aren’t they? Time away from work to relax and forget your daily grind. Germany has many more holidays than we do in the States and the amount of vacation days here pales in comparison to the standard two weeks that we Americans get. The amount of time off, combined with the longer lunches in Germany, make working here, for those employed by an actual company, more like grade school than work, except that there is no recess. Not because the Germans don’t like to play but, because of their obsessive tendencies, the effort to organize any type of play would be too much like work and would therefore defeat the purpose.
Perhaps you even have enough time to fly to the beach a couple of times a year with your lavish amount of time off. If this sounds familiar, I hate you. Since I work for myself, and because almost all of my clients are in the U.S., I get no real vacation time. When even they have vacation, I still have deadlines. What I do get, however, are sporadic bursts of downtime between projects that are impossible to plan for. Because these are precious gifts, I use them wisely by playing Bejeweled on my iPhone.
7). YOU WILL AVOID PEOPLE AT ALL COSTS.
There are two phases to working from home when it comes to other people. In the beginning of your self-employment, the less frequent contact with others may spur you to welcome anyone and everyone that comes to, or near, your door. You might even start inviting Jehovah’s Witnesses in for coffee and conversation. As word of your weirdness gets out, you will resort to ambushing your neighbors as they try to sneak into their driveways. Don’t worry, this is only phase one and is temporary as being cooped up at home all by yourself will eventually turn you into an agoraphobic hermit. You will soon shy away from human contact at every opportunity. Where you once welcomed anyone that darkened your doorstep, you will soon peek inconspicuously through your shutters whenever the doorbell chimes before hiding in a closet. This is phase two.
You probably already have a friend like this. He is the one who never attends your dinner parties or, if he does show up (because he is dragged there by his lovely and understanding wife), stays only long enough to make everyone else feel awkward by muttering to himself like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man while touching everyones’ faces. You, like me, are now this guy. We are the same. Let me touch your face.
As previously reported, the Feierbabend in Germany is akin to the U.S. Happy Hour where people leave their miserable jobs to become happy by drinking alcohol. Due to their long commutes, this most often occurs in America at a pub close to their place of employment, leaving the attendees to either hail a cab afterward, or play parked-car-pinball when they drive home.
Commutes are often shorter for Germans and so they can usually walk a few blocks to the local tavern, or they can do what most Germans do: Crack open a bottle or two when they get home. As a “work-from-homer” in Germany, you, however, can drink whenever the clock strikes your fancy. It’s always 5:00 PM somewhere, right? No matter the time of day, you can always say “Cheers”! Tough phone call at 3:00 PM? No problem. It’s quitting time in Moscow. “Zazdarovje”! Lost a client at 11:00 AM? Don’t worry! It’s happy hour in Beijing! “干杯”! An added bonus is that you never have to drink and drive. The downside is that you are now an “Alkoholiker”. If you need that word translated, you probably already are one.
That wraps up this one, my pals. All right, former pals. For those of you whom I’ve neglected, I apologize. We can make up, provided you can get over my wardrobe and my fear of you. For the rest of my lapsed friends, we too can make amends: Just bring your account up to date by making your overdue bills payable to “TBB.com”, you deadbeats.