Why burning boats and bridges is never a good idea … or the difference between Baguettes & Bier

As the saying goes “Never say never”… When I left Germany back in 1982 as far as I was concerned it was definitive, forever. I never dreamed I’d be going back there someday, that I’d even want to go back, much less find myself sitting with my wife on the balcony of our new apartment, in one of the better areas of Cologne, listening to the Sunday morning church bells chime the hour.

Never burn a bridge, especially if you're standing on it! Very symbolic

Without a doubt leaving France and coming back to Germany was a calculated even necessary move and said like that it might sound a bit mercenary so I’ll qualify it. France may be perceived as a nice easy-going place to live in, as it certainly is for a holiday, but objectively being on holiday in France and working in France are two totally different things. The figures speak for themselves. France ranks in the top three countries for world tourism but “only” 21st in Global Competitiveness Index, and that in spite of some high-profile companies like Total, EDF, Orange, Veolia or LVMH to name a few of France’s better known industry leaders. So when someone made me a unique offer and that offer just happens to be a) career wise, very interesting, b) family wise, very beneficial and c) in a very suitable environment, there are times when you shouldn’t think twice and this was one of them.

But who says “family” means, first and foremost, wife, partner and significant other half and I’m happy, but not surprised, to say my wife was and is in phase my views and opinions on why we had to move.

So with my wife sharing my feelings plans were drawn up, contacts established and with everything gradually slotting into place things started inexorably moving forward towards D-day. The deal was on!
That said, having been round the block a couple of time, a little voice told me to take some precautionary measures, just in case, so red flags and trip switches were installed at key points along way and I’m happy to say that they were never needed. The deal didn’t fall through and the thought of having to retract never crossed my mind… Everything went as planned right up to the day we actually got into the car and embarked on an epic eight-hour car drive, a story in itself.

In retrospect all this says a lot about the seriousness of the offer and where it was coming from. It also says a lot about certain my own past experiences, that had made me feel red flags may be needed and finally it can give you an idea of the immense relief I felt when the deal starting taking form, then finally materializing and as we sat on the balcony of our new flat in Cologne, enjoying the first of many leisurely Sunday mornings to come verdict was rendered: We’d done the right thing.

So what made me think I could build a better future in Germany?

So just what were my wife and my reasons for going to Germany? What had brought about such a radical and unexpected move? Why do people want to go to Germany when as far as holiday resorts go Germany isn’t at the top of most people’s “Top 10 places to go before dying” list? (although the German Black Forest is actually one of my favourite destinations). No you go Germany to work and secure a future and as far as we where concerned going to Germany was the answer to a very simple question and a matter of making a clear-cut logical decision, and the Germans like things clear-cut. I thought I could build a future in France, but on seeing how the situation in France was developing I realized I couldn’t and started rethinking my strategy…
…and while thinking the strategy through I found 4 very good reasons that justified moving and these were:

Reason #1. Priorities.
The mind-set, approach and modus operandi are different and priorities are clearer in Germany and, more importantly, collectively applied whereas in France, where reigns what’s generally called the “Providential State”, a system more like a “Revolving Credit” than self-sufficient “Auto-financing” structure, the roadmap is not so clear. Furthermore, while the French are renowned for their individuality the tradition of state intervention is still deep-rooted and when it doesn’t work and the country enters recession, or sees its credit rating devalued, the news is met with a Gaulic shrug of the shoulders and a phlegmatic “That’s life” (qu’est qu’on peut faire? … c’est comme ca! … C’est la systeme!). The Germans are more pragmatic about such situations and before the spectre of a credit rating devaluation even materializes they’ve initiated actions… but above all they know that to help people get where they want to go is to help the country move forwards… as I said its a matter of getting their priorities right (happy workers are happy voters).

Reason #2. Employment.
While acknowledging that unemployment is a reality the German system sets about treating the problem at the roots. The strategy is very clear. Help people out but get people back on the production line, so to speak, as quickly as possible and as well equipped as possible (you need training, they’ve got it and give it). What’s more the process starts as soon as you register with the German job center*, not when your assistance is about to be terminated. For having seen the same process at work in France it’s very clear that French unemployment system is 20 years behind that of the German system. I’ll qualify that. The French unemployment system is well equipped for registering the unemployed and has a vast selection of assistance solutions to support the unemployed, but its State run. It’s also blatantly ill-equipped at actually getting people back to work. In Germany a lot of the procedures have been privatized for quite a few years now with the end result being that the onus is on assisting the job seeker while they get back to work and the responsibility lies very clearly with the job seeker. In France, on the other hand, the onus is on assisting the unemployed during their unemployment. The French State is generous (sic providential), albeit it unintentionally, but this generosity comes at a cost, a cost that is becoming increasingly difficult to support.
(NB. Note the use of the words “job seeker” and “unemployed”. It helps better illustrate where responsibilities lie).
(*accompanying my wife to the German job center I was amazed to see that a) it wasn’t as full with people registering for state assistance, rather than employment, as it would be in France and b) reception and registration was i) quick, ii) Friendly and iii) proactive, almost intuitive (we understand why you’re here and can help you!)).

Reason #3: Career span.
Not so long ago in France I set about analyzing my pension scheme and that meant, with the help of the respective administrations from 3 European states*, retracing my career back through 4 European countries to a now quite distant beginning. The outcome was that if I stayed in France, with the current mandatory retirement age as it is, I could resign myself to a relatively early retirement with a so, so pension. I’ve already talked about pensions in a previous blog so I won’t waste space here, suffice to say that this raised one very fundamental question. What to do? Retire at 60 or 62 and benefit from an adequate French pension scheme with a) a shaky future, no longer to be indexed to inflation and subject to social charges or b) expatriation to some far-flung country where the cost of living wouldn’t leave me on the bread line and obviously the response to this dilemma was to set about changing things! The idea of retiring to some far-flung country still holds but I’d prefer to have sufficient capital to be able to choose from a maximum of destinations.
(* Ironically, and even before any plans to move to Germany had germed or any unexpected offers had been made, it was the German Pension Administration that proved to be the most efficient, even the most proactive of the 3 administrations in retracing my career. Could even have been spooky had there had been any “unexplainable” or unusual gaps my career!)

Reason #4: The environment.
As we sat on our new balcony, taking in the new surroundings (such a change from our environment in Grenoble) we knew that this change of life style came a cost but that’s not what it’s about. It’s all about wanting to go beyond limits and striving for something better, something beyond existing boundaries so that in turn it becomes your comfort zone. And honestly, if there is going to be all this working and striving then you might as well do it in the right environment and have something to show for it, something I found missing in France. Ok so I its easy to criticize France now I’ve left it and one of the qualities of the French is their “Savoir vivre” but there’s more to it than that. I’ll explain.

I once took part in a Chamber of Commerce training for French companies looking to develop bilateral business relations in Germany (a relationship that seems to be more favorable for German businesses than their French counterparts). The training was about the cultural differences between the French and Germans and all the stereotypes (“Baguettes & Bier”) were touched on, enough said here. Suffice to say that, and remember I listened to them all with the amused ears of an impartial Englishman, I retained two major cultural differences between the French and German cultures which will give the reader an idea as to why I came back to Germany:
i) The German society is not afraid of showing, even nurturing individual social well-being, because in doing so they are reinforcing the collective social structure and
ii) The Germans make every possible (and collective) effort to achieve this goal!

So after reading this post you’re thinking this sounds like an eulogy to the German culture by another maverick Brit then let me just reassure the reader. Yes I’m English, with an Englishman’s vision of life, albeit slightly tempered by numerous years on the continent but again thats not what it’s about. To coin another age-old adage “Why did you do it? Because I could!” … I came back to Germany because I could, because someone made me a very good offer, because I could exploit the system and because, in spite of age or any other more or less valid reason, I wanted what was best for my family and didn’t think twice and because I just love a challenge.


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