Out of Work Spaniards Flock to Germany, Confront Cultural Divide

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22 year old Patricia Cigala, a Spaniard from the southeast city of Murcia, says goodbye to her visiting mom at a cold bus stop in Munich, Germany. Cigala moved to Germany three months ago and found a job with a catering company. She says it's taken her a while to get used to Germany's more rigidly structured social life. For example she says you can't just pop by a German friend's house unnannounced without getting weird looks.

A growing number of Spaniards are getting obsessed with Germany and its image as a worker’s paradise. Those who go learn quickly that while you may earn more in Germany you also pay more in taxes – and that everybody actually pays. Once that shock is past, newcomers, at least the ones I met in Munich last week, agreed that the German system seems to work pretty well.

But beyond the issues of jobs and money, Spaniards seeking their fortunes in “Alemania” [the Spanish name for Germany] run into a whole bunch of cultural challenges. Some of them are well known, others surprise.

I doubt any Spaniard has left for Hamburg or Berlin without having heard that Germans are punctual. Very punctual. Spaniards, it is also widely known, are not.

But because they’re prepared for this difference Spanish workers in Germany usually adapt quickly. I’ll be at work by 8:30 has to mean 8:30. Not 8:45, 9:07 or next Thursday.

But for 20-year-old Patricia Cigala, a native of Murcia in southeast Spain who’s been in Munich for three months, it isn’t Germany’s highly organized work schedule that’s thrown her off. It’s what she sees as Germans’ equally regimented social lives.

“This city is really big,” she said to me, waiting on a freezing morning for a bus that would take her visiting mother to the airport. “Sometimes you find yourself in a (German) acquaintance’s neighborhood and you want to just pop by, unannounced.” She shook her head. “Don’t do it.”

Cigala, who’s found a job in catering, said that in Spain friends and neighbors constantly drop in without warning. Not only are they welcome; it’s a given that they’ll be served coffee, a beer, whatever’s on hand. “Here, you have to have a date,” she said. “A date and a time. And you have to set it up days, sometimes weeks, in advance.”

Cigala said such formality gets under her skin – much more than the cold winter air – but that she was learning to adapt. It was either that, she said, “or move back in with my parents in Murcia, and find a job earning $800 a month.”

20-year-old nanny Ana Abad, from Madrid, has a head’s start on Cigala. Abad’s been in Munich for a year, and said she’s made some close German friends. Sitting in an all-night bar in the Old City, Abad told me, “Germans seem very closed off at first, but in the end you realize that they’re not cold at all. I’ve made true, good friends here.”

She said that she also suffered initially due to the Germans seemingly distant attitude. But she said time, and an open mind, were the keys to winning over the locals.

When I met Spanish architect Ana Garcia Puyol at my hotel it was clear how little time she’d been here. A day, actually. She greeted me with the stiffest, straightest, most uncomfortable handshake I can remember. Very un-Spanish. Very un-German, even.

Turns out she didn’t know that I’ve lived in Spain for the last eight years. That’s where I was coming from, culturally, when I leaned forward for the traditional Spanish double-kiss. She resisted, I backed off, fearing I’d snap her elbow.

Later, when she realized I lived in her home country – and especially that I speak Spanish – her demeanor changed. She relaxed, opened up, told jokes. And I thought, Ana’s warming to me is like a sped-up version of how Germans will warm to her.

At first there’ll be distance. But one day, with persistence, Ana will speak the language, get to know the customs, and the doors will start opening. The demeanor of the Germans she meets will change, they’ll relax, open up, start telling jokes*. She’ll have made friends.

In my experience it’s only then that you can really know whether you want to live in an adopted country, or go home.

*Perhaps nowhere is the breech between Spanish and German culture wider than when it comes to humor. Both sides know it. Each think they’re funnier.