Seeing a jogger running around the Alster or along the Elbe for the first time might provoke a little giggle, if not bring you out in a fit of laughter. The tight, lycra trousers. Hair overflowing out of a headband like a neglected pot plant. Set off by a pair of steamed-up glasses, held perfectly in place by the practical headband. There’s no need to feel awkward in your amusement because the German jogger either won’t notice you laughing, or won’t care.
To put a positive spin on it: Germans are not usually worried about what other people think of them, but do what it takes to get the job done. At their best, they are non-conformist and persistent. Nearly every German job advertisement asks Durchsetzungsvermögen of its applicants: the ability to get your way.
Leticia Sigarrostegui García says she has grown as a person since coming to Germany, citing Durchsetzungsvermögen as one of the German character traits she has adopted. On top of this, I would say there is certainly something non-conformist about her story. Leticia lives in Hamburg, is the author of two books, teaches Spanish and Danish, has lived in Madrid, Cologne, Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Hamburg, and works for XING, the biggest business networking website in the German-speaking world. Who better to tell me about German culture and the comparative merits of cities like Hamburg?
So in a café around the corner from her employer, I deprive Leticia of her lunch hour to find out: why Hamburg?
Leticia loves languages, other cultures and literature. She is curious about people’s backgrounds, why they act as they do, and the logic behind their way of understanding life. She chose to study German Philology – and so her story starts in her home city, Madrid, with a stroke of Teutonic non-conformism:
I wanted to study English Philology. But lots of people studied English, and therefore I decided to study something more exotic.
She studied in Madrid but took an Erasmus year in Cologne during her degree:
To learn a language properly it’s a good idea to live for some time in the country where it is spoken; and to really get to know a culture, you need to speak the language.
After finishing her studies in Madrid, Leticia moved to Copenhagen because she had also studied Danish whilst studying in Cologne. While she was in Copenhagen, Leticia was responsible for relations with Spain and Latin America at a company that created online quizzes. She had lots of international colleagues and found the Danes very tolerant of foreigners. The atmosphere there was very collegial and almost like being at university.
In 2001 she moved to Kollmar, near Hamburg. Working initially as a Spanish teacher before being asked to teach Danish too, she also wrote two novels in Spanish. She moved to Hamburg in 2006 but as an author she travelled regularly to the Frankfurt Buchmesse, an international book fair where she met her agent, a German who represents only Spanish-speaking authors. She was so taken with Frankfurt that she moved there.
After moving to Frankfurt, she must have missed something about Hamburg. The initial move to the city on the river Elbe was complicated, almost accidental, having little to do with the parks, lakes, waterways or the public transport system. From what Leticia says, the cafés, the people, the cultural offering were not major factors in her decision.
It’s difficult to get to the bottom of why Leticia is in Hamburg. Perhaps a comparison of the various cities she has lived in will bring us closer to the truth.
In Cologne she liked the city’s famous cathedral and the imposing architecture on the way into the city. In Copenhagen she enjoyed cycling around the city and taking Sophus, her English Springer Spaniel dog, for walks in the forest.
The people in Copenhagen were open and were flattered I chose to live in their city and learn their language and they were interested in my culture.
And what about Frankfurt?
Coming into Frankfurt, with its huge buildings, I found it fascinating. I had positive associations of Frankfurt through the Buchmesse and I wanted to make a new start.
And last but not least, what is it about Hamburg that she likes?
I am very fond of the public libraries in Hamburg. They have really good modern books and a great borrowing system. I go there at least once a week and mainly read non-fiction like psychology, sociology.
Hamburg has lovely architecture, and is very nice in the centre and around the Alster. Everyone likes that. It is very varied, there’s something for everyone. The public transport is great. It could market itself better.
But if you thought Leticia decided to stay in Hamburg for the libraries, culture, greenness, public transport or whatever else we think people like about cities, you may be disappointed. In fact, she says she is not really a city person, and her dream would be to get away from it all and live in the countryside – so long as there is a city nearby and a steady internet connection.
Here’s Leticia’s explanation for why she returned to Hamburg and stayed here so long :
I still had my flat in Hamburg and friends, but I think I decided to stay because I found my current employment, and I’m glad that I stayed for it. I’ve been working there for five years now.
Incidentally: there’s that German stubbornness again. The rest of the world uses LinkedIn, but Germans a business networking tool all of their own. XING can’t be doing badly, having recently moved into swanky new offices next to the opera and in 2012 Leticia had more than 500 colleagues.
Leticia’s attitude towards German culture and way of life is overall very positive. She started by telling me about the huge cultural differences between Germany and its neighbour less than 200km north of Hamburg:
Germany and Denmark are right next to each other, but two different worlds. Danes like everything to be hyggelig, which is something like “cheerful, cosy, happy”; but talking about problems or concerns is sometimes unwelcome because it spoils the good mood.
In Germany, people are more direct and don’t try to hide problems or worries. I am grateful I got to know the Danish hygge, I need that attitude today, but I like the German way. For me it has to do with authenticity.
Leticia admits that Germans can sometimes be too pessimistic and dwell on small problems unnecessarily. Especially when she first moved to Germany, she found it difficult to adapt:
My time in Cologne was my first real contact with German society. I found some Germans’ directness and even aggression difficult to deal with, sometimes offensive.
German perfectionism can be annoying, especially when combined with inflexibility. (As I mentioned in a previous post, Germans are great at doing things properly, but sometimes reluctant to do them differently.) But Leticia says she has grown as a person since moving abroad, and values having as much Durchsetzungsvermögen as any German. She is impressed by the German proficiency for thinking deeply about things and their attention to issues that, in other countries, are seen as peripheral: for example, she is happy that Germany takes animal rights seriously.
Leticia’s colleagues consider her typically Spanish because of the way she acts and the different perspectives she brings. Until visiting the United States she always thought she was a citizen of the world, but upon going there she noticed cultural differences that make her feel more European and now considers herself a citizen of Europe.
Leticia doesn’t plan on moving away from Hamburg soon, and is happy with the people, work, and the way of life. But is she planning to stay abroad for ever?
I fly to Madrid several times a year. When I come back to Hamburg I have a lot more energy and am full of inspiration. I sometimes feel I am missing a lot in Madrid, especially my parents, but you have to do your own thing – as my parents did: neither of them comes from Madrid. My mother was born in Málaga, in southern Spain, and my father left Peru at the age of 16 and lived in the States, Germany and Holland before moving to Spain.
One question, many different answers
Without necessarily donning the lycra trousers, tight headband and practical glasses, Leticia is a reminder that international people don’t necessarily conform to a common standard, spending time in cities for all sorts of reasons. The things we think are great about our cities, and the reasons we say we stay here, may be just nice-to-haves for other people, maybe even irrelevant when choosing which city to live in.
Leticia’s case is a little complicated, admirably non-conformist: she dreams of getting away from it all and living in the countryside, has experimented with other cities and her favourite thing about Hamburg is the public library system. She is here because of Germany, its culture, her job and her friends. A citizen of Europe, yet feeling at home exactly here, who knows where the future will take her, or why.