During my very first tour, I really struggled to find my social circle as I settled into a new lifestyle. One of the people I met during that tour, who has stayed in touch and is near to my heart was Annette Lohmann. She and her husband, Thomas Greven, are a German couple who were stationed in Africa for 9 years. Annette worked on democracy and governance projects for a German NGO and Thomas is a Professor of Political Science who would travel between countries.
They returned to Berlin in 2019 and intend to be there for a little bit. Returning after 9 years is certainly an adjustment, as you and the country have certainly changed since you were last there full time. I was therefore, excited to interview them about their return experience and hope readers will find some gems of wisdom in their reflections.
What was the hardest thing about returning home?
A: Leaving my friends, especially a very close circle of international friends, was the hardest part as I knew that we would have not so many chances to see each other in person at least for a while. Digitalization makes things a bit better but can obviously not replace our old kind of interaction. During the pandemic we have been more closely in touch.
T: In the months before leaving, I was somewhat worried about my professional re-integration (at the ripe age of 53). I even had a coach. But I got lucky and found a full-time job on a temporary basis (with Annette’s employer!). The position isn’t a complete fit, but it allows me to continue my freelance work and to figure out where to go next. What was hardest for me was to see how much German society had changed for the worse. While I had spent every summer semester in Germany, teaching, and while I had followed German politics intellectually, the increased polarization and hate-mongering from the right has been upsetting.
What did you least expect to challenge you when you returned? How did you overcome it?
A: I was very focused on what would come next in my new “German” life. I thought that I had simply closed one chapter and would move on. But I underestimated my need to deal with all the memories and I came to understand that I occasionally needed a moment to mourn the loss of my old life.
T: It was hard to keep my mouth shut in the face of people complaining excessively about every little inconvenience. And then I found that very quickly those “Luxusprobleme” (small inconveniences in a very luxurious context, like trains being a few minutes late) began to get on my nerves too. … so, I have kept my mouth shut, munching on some humble pie.
What was the best piece of advice you received when returning? From whom or where?
A: A very experienced colleague told me that you need approximately one month for every year that you spent abroad to reintegrate yourself back into your original culture and society. I found that to be very true even though we had always kept close ties to our friends and former life in Berlin.
T: As an academic, freelancer and freewheeling trailing spouse, I knew I was going to have a hard time returning to the world of regular office work. Quite frankly, I was dreading it. But a friend pointed out that ending this rather “aristocratic” period of my life would allow me to gain new experiences, meet new people, re-learn how to work as part of a team, and, for future reference, appreciate the benefits of the life of a trailing spouse – because it isn’t as though I had not complained about that life, too.
What do you wish you had done differently when returning?
T+A: We should have thrown a big party with our friends whom we were leaving (which we did when we left Germany years prior). We talked about it, procrastinated because of work, because of travel etc., and then suddenly the moment had passed. We did re-connect with most people, but in hindsight, in the face of the pandemic, it could have been memorable.
Given your unique circumstances of living abroad sometimes in countries with political instability, where partners weren’t allowed and Thomas’ travel schedule, what suggestions do you have for others who may find themselves spending significant time apart while abroad sometimes in different places?
T: Research or conference trips were always short, weeks rather than months. But during the 2012-13 Mali crisis, we were indeed separated for some time. I guess it helped us that we knew it was only temporary. I had more or less given up my academic career so that we wouldn’t be apart for longer periods of time. Even when I taught in Berlin in the Summer, we were always able to spend five or six weeks together.
What resonated with you? How does Annette and Thomas' experience shift your own perspective or plans regarding how you will transition? How will you say farewell?
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