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April 1998

Continental Drift: Why Young Americans are Flocking Abroad

The hows and whys of young Americans settling in Munich.

In the past it was the lure of cheap living, grand art, health cures, renowned universities or 'la vie boheme' that drew itchy-footed Americans across the sea. Well-to-do and ne'er-do-well alike found elements of appeal on the Continent, discovering that a taste of Europe was a delicacy savored and not soon forgotten. As Henry James famously phrased it, "Europe unfits Americans for America." But those were times when America itself was still a bit unfit; the rough-and-ready life that characterized colonial and pioneer days was only gradually fading from memory. Americans were - as late as a hundred years ago -still attempting to establish the legitimacy of their new nation, and even the great cities of Chicago and New York seemed provincial backwaters when measured by Parisian or Roman standards. For the thin strata of fin-de-sieclè nouveau riche, Europe offered the titled sophistication and inherited glamour America aspired to, but had not yet achieved. Young people with the resources to do so slipped between cultures and continents with enviable elegance and ease, absorbing languages, habits, and world views that they hoped would bring them nearer to their aristocratic European brethren. For the struggling artist or writer seeking inspiration, Europe offered an appealing blend of uncorsetted living, natural and architectural beauty, and limping local currencies that stretched even the most meager publisher's advance into a month of baguettes and boujeaulais. Such dreams were easily realized in a world where work permits, visas and immigration quotas were as unheard of as four-hour transatlantic crossings. Now, at the turn of a later century, circumstances are markedly different America's economy is booming, unemployment skips along at under five percent, a budget surplus seems imminent, and the dollar is the undisputed global currency of choice. Job and earnings prospects look bright for the twentysomethings who've overcome their "Gen X" reputation to take advantage of this wealth. America has long since stopped fretting over the legitimacy of its culture and is now itself a magnet for creative and ambitious souls the world over. Back on the Continent, however, unemployment rates of 12-20% burden already faltering economies; taxes are stabbingly steep; once-steady pillars of socialism are showing their age; the great centers of learning and artistic excellence have largely migrated elsewhere. And, as anyone who has recently paid six marks for a coffee can attest, Europe's reputation as a bargain basement is also long out of date. Why, then, are increasing numbers of young Americans including Europe, and Munich in particular, on their life's itineraries? The reasons are as diverse as the people who come here: management consultants, students, bankers, writers, high-tech specialists, engineers - all swept to Europe's shores by the wave of globalism and interconnectivity that are the hallmark of our age. Modern Wanderlust is also driven by economics, but on a more individual level. A November article in the Economist points out that of the 80 million people worldwide who reside in countries they were not born in, substantial numbers of them are there due to shifts in "human capital;" that is, skilled workers and professionals employed by multinational companies who find it worth the considerable effort and expense to distribute their workforces internally, rather than rely upon local labor supplies. This means that an American company with offices in Munich (such as Microsoft, State Street, Kraft, McKinsey, Intel) that a decade ago would have trained a German for the post, now imports experienced in-house employees to do the job. Benefits to the company, beyond the obvious resultant national diversity of the workforce, include the familiarity an in-house employee will already have with the corporate culture, a variety of educational and business experiences and cultures, their skills as native English speaker, and innovative approaches to material a local hire might treat more traditionally. Although Americans tends to lack the foreign language skills and lengthy theoretical educations Europeans receive, a U.S. M.B.A is widely regarded as a golden fleece here in Europe.Spreading staff around the globe is a costly proposition, but twentysomethings tend to be single and as yet unburdened with material goods, making them somewhat more attractive candidates. Young people's flexibility and adaptability to take root and flourish in foreign soil also make them prime specimens for transplantation. The benefits are mutual: Kavita Aiyar, a high-tech marketing specialist, believes that working abroad helps her to view problems and solutions from new perspectives. Michael Boos, an information technology (IT) consultant with an American firm here, thinks his experience abroad will set him apart from similarly qualified candidates when he returns to the States. Of course, not every young expatriate who calls Munich home has come solely to further a career. The tales of semester-abroad students who fell in love with more than just the local culture and are still here years later are numerous. Nannying and Au Pair jobs land many (predominantly) young women in Europe for what they expectto be a limited stay. Such jobs, more than most, provide an excellent opportunity to mix with locals, learn the culture, and establish contacts that lead to unrelated longer-term positions that, though unplanned, offer surprising challenges and satisfaction. A dull job in your home town is a dull job. The same position in Milan, Madrid, or Munich, however, is an opportunity to become multilingual, familiarize yourself with foreign business practices, make yourself more marketable when you return home, and deepen your understanding of the country you left behind as well as the one you've come to embrace. It is also, more often than not, a launching pad to an extensive range of international careers that don't crop up in the average American suburban outpost. Even everyday tasks performed in foreign places confer a sense of mastery: who hasn't taken some small degree of pride in having figured out the washing machine or bus route? Kimberly Kiefer, who came to Munich last year to further her legal studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität as a Humboldt scholar, says "the timing in her life" was a decisive factor in her choice to come here. She recognized that the chance would not soon present itself again for her to pursue her interest in learning German, while building her professional skills and enjoying the more relaxed Bavarian pace of work. Now back in the States, she reflects that among the most satisfying aspects of life abroad are the fundamental friendships built on an "underlying common denominator" of shared interests and experiences, coupled with the need for a taste of home when so far from it. A thinner slice of the expat population comes to satisfy curiosity about their family heritage. A highly unscientific survey of the last names of American acquaintances here reveals that German forefathers are another common expat denominator. Mark Stumpf, a first-generation American, came to Germany eight years ago to explore his roots and "test the waters" of his affinity to German culture. As a result of his bicultural upbringing, he felt driven to examine life on both sides of the Atlantic in order to resolve the question of "do I have to pick or can I choose" in order to be at peace with himself. Although it was his 18-month contract with an accountancy firm that gave him that chance, "enjoyment of the lifestyle, bilingualism and understanding of both American and German mentalities" is what has kept him here so much longer. Others are drawn here by less practical considerations: books and films, in which the fictional simplicity of packing your valise and arriving a new you in the Old World present great appeal. Practical considerations such as employment rates and health benefits tend to pale when the prospect of cultural conquest calls. But these allurements alone are not enough to tear the average 25-year-old from the comforting familiarity of known surroundings, conventions and tongues. This is where the definition-eluding, yet decisive, 'quality of life' comes into play. Customs as confusing and enchanting as the narrow, twisting streets from which they spring; languorous afternoons whiled away in chandeliered cafés; church bells, cloistered gardens, grand vistas, and great beer are just the beginning. Elizabeth Bolton, who traded Silicon Valley for the Tegernseer Tal, says she was drawn here by the elegant compromise Munich strikes between busy city and quiet town, where a healthy environment and beautiful surroundings can be enjoyed with minimal traffic and trouble. She, and many others, value the balanced lifestyle and clear demarcation between work and leisure time - a luxury that no amount of American prosperity seems able to buy. For all its wealth and power, few American cities can boast the low crime, clean air, punctual public transportation, sound infrastructure and social benefits Munich offers. Being able to walk home alone carefree after midnight, or knowing your health insurance won't disappear if your job does, are comforts that Americans who live here know not to take for granted. While few would come solely for these benefits, they prove a determining factor in nearly every person's choice to call this city home for a year or two or longer. Beyond this, it is the ineluctable air of history and tradition echoing from the simple cobble-stoned street and palazzo vecchio alike that engender affection from those who take up residence here. America's mighty, modern achievements spring from the power and vivacity of its very youthfulness. By stark contrast, it is Europe's worn, oft-mended cloak of past greatness that endears it to us now. We are given license to idealize and romanticize even the bloodiest bits of its history because they are safely buried beneath the sediment of sentiment and detached from our own experience by distance and time. Many of us have come here looking to replicate that sense of grand adventure and sublimity, to capture something of its essence, and carry it back with us like a faded, yet still-fragrant bouquet.

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