Elizabeth, a-lawyer-turned-creative, took a leap of faith after her move abroad and decided to start her own calligraphy business. Find out more about her experiences as an American Expat living in Munich and how she launched her design company, Red Clay Paper.
Most Expats have made the personal choice to move abroad for work, love or to just seek out a new adventure. However, there are those of us that end up moving because our significant other is either transferred or has the opportunity to work abroad and therefore, decide as a team to give this new life overseas a shot!
However, the reality of moving to a new country in this situation can sometimes be a bit tricky. Because unlike your partner, you may have to put your career on hold due to the fact that working permissions may not be granted. Or if you are able to get a working permit in your new country of residence, you may find yourself doing something completely different than what you were doing back home for various reasons. Some of those reasons could include lack of language skills or perhaps credentials not being transferable.
But instead of becoming frustrated with the working situation, it can become an excellent “forced” opportunity to try something new! This is exactly what our friend and fellow Expat decided to do!
We sat down with Elizabeth from Red Clay Paper, to find out how she was able to embrace the opportunity of moving abroad as a trailing spouse and find success during this new chapter of her life!
Expat Interview with City Starlings
Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a southern girl—I grew up in Virginia and most recently lived in North Carolina. I’m a lawyer-turned-creative: I launched my stationery and calligraphy design company, Red Clay Paper after we moved abroad in 2015.
How long have you lived in Munich? And why Munich?
I’ve been in Munich for 14 months. We moved abroad for my husband’s job with a German company, which has taken us to Nuremberg and Mexico City (each for about a year), and now back to Bavaria!
How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
With everything in life, there are highs and lows. I’ve loved the adventure of living abroad: the opportunity to immerse yourself in a new culture, meeting new friends from all over the world, and the chance to travel. (You can’t take a “weekend getaway” to the Alps or to Southern France from North Carolina!) I really appreciate how easy it is to live here in Munich: the public transportation is great, you can bike anywhere, the city is super clean, and the local parks are incredible!
But there are difficult parts about living abroad, too. Little things—like going through the grocery line or calling to make a doctor’s appointment—can be really intimidating because my language skills are limited. And there are cultural norms you can only learn by breaking them, like running your washing machine on a Sunday or asking for tap water at a restaurant (both big no-nos here in Munich).
Most of all, I’ve learned that I need to work harder than ever to both make and maintain friendships. Language and cultural barriers make it more difficult to meet new people. So I’ve had to go outside of my comfort zone to make friends—through Facebook groups or even asking a random woman at the park if she wants to get a coffee-based solely on the fact that she, too, has a dog. I’ve had more blind “friend dates” than I can count, whereas back in the States making relationships and being part of the community would happen more naturally.
Do you speak German? Describe your process for learning the language. Do you think it is important to know the local language?
I speak basic German, or what I like to call “caveman German”: I can communicate most ideas, but I can’t promise that my grammar is perfect! I am a big believer in learning the local language as an expat; it makes day-to-day life easier, and you can better understand your neighbors and the local culture. Sure, you can get by with just English here in Munich, but let’s be honest: it’s downright rude to expect everyone to speak English! At the very minimum, I start with German and if things get complicated or misunderstood, I ask if they speak English. (Chances are they do, and it’s better than my German!)
To learn the language, I took an intensive course at Inlingua when we first moved to Germany, and it got me to a solid base level (A1). This has gotten me by, but I’ve realized that I need stronger German to live here long-term. I work from home in English, so I don’t have as many immersion experiences as someone like my husband, who works in a German office environment every day. As a result, my German skills have plateaued in comparison to his. So this fall, I’ll be starting a new course with the goal of reaching B2—the level necessary for long-term residency.
What would you have liked to know about Munich before moving here?
Even though day-to-day life in Munich is easy (as I said above) with parks and public transportation, I’ve found that it’s difficult to make relationships with Münchners. People here tend to be a little colder socially, so striking up a conversation at a bar or even with your neighbor is difficult. (I’ve heard the same sentiment even from Germans who aren’t from Bavaria!) This is a big change from living in the South or in Mexico, where people exude more outward warmth and camaraderie. That doesn’t mean that Münchners are unkind or cold people, (although I’ve definitely encountered a few who fit the “schickimicki” snobby stereotype), but it is more difficult to break through their outer shell and make a meaningful connection.
I also wasn’t prepared for the complexity of the bureaucracy here, which means mountains of paperwork for everything from filings for my small business, doing your taxes, or applying for your kid’s spot in school. Everything must be printed on paper and must be sent through the mail (never e-mail), whether it’s little things like a doctor’s invoice or something super important like your German social security number.
Like any new place, there are lots of little things that were unexpected, too: like needing cash at most restaurants and cafes, not having a clothes dryer, that grocery stores and shops are closed on Sundays, or that we needed to train our hound dog to fit in with the impeccable behavior of dogs here. (That last one is still on the “to-do” list!)
One thing no one tells you about moving abroad.
Living abroad has been one of the best experiences of my life, but there have been a few things we were unprepared for, such as:
Little things take big courage.
Simple, day-to-day tasks can feel indomitable. Successfully calling the doctor’s office to change your appointment time, communicating how you want your starch at the dry cleaners, or making a reservation at a restaurant are all small victories for me.
Friendships take hard work.
Before living abroad, we were lucky to have made good friends quickly, whether it was through school or a gym class. Here, the language and cultural barriers have made it really difficult to make new connections. We realized the hard way that having friends where we live are absolutely necessary; we thought friendships would come naturally and didn’t work at it, and we found ourselves lonely and homesick. So we started this new year with a renewed, intentional focus of making meaningful new connections, as well as fostering our relationships with family and friends back home.
Going home is hard.
While we treasure our limited trips back home in the States to visit friends and family, we’ve realized that reverse culture shock is very real. While the States is “home,” we have felt an alienating disconnection on our visits. Our friends and family can’t fully relate to our experiences, so the conversation about our lives is limited. Oftentimes, when someone at home asks, “How is Germany?,” they really just want a quick answer so they can tell you about their trip abroad 10 years ago in an effort to relate to your life abroad. So during my trips home, I’ve felt a sense of detachment, like I have one foot here and one foot at home—without truly being in either.
You also see your home country in a different light and recognize things that you appreciate about your new life abroad. For me and my husband, we’ve realized that we appreciate not needing a car and the efficient public transportation, the social support system here in Germany—such as health care and support for families, the access to green space and the countryside because of the absence of suburban sprawl, and living in a less wasteful society that focuses on renewable and sustainable energy systems, public transportation, and mandatory recycling.
What do you miss most about your home country that you can not find here in Munich?
Mexican food. Full stop.
We’ve tried—and failed—to find good Mexican food here. Everywhere we’ve tried just misses the mark. I have a pipe dream of opening up our own Mexican restaurant here in Munich… I just need to figure out how to make a profit when avocados cost 2 euros each! And whenever I go home to the states or back to Mexico, hot sauce and chiles are always in my suitcase coming back.
What is your favorite (restaurant, museum, shop, cafe..)?
There are so many wonderful places to explore here in Munich, whether it’s for a delicious bite or to experience its rich (and complicated) history.
Some of my favorites spots are:
- Münchner Suppenküche in the Viktualinmarkt for an on-the-go lunch (the carrot ginger soup is delicious!)
- Coffee dates and work meetings at the lush and trendy Lost Weekend Cafe in the Royal Bavarian Hotel (don’t skip the lime cheesecake!)
- Bikini Mitte bar is my go-to for cocktails and dancing (they spin 90s hip-hop and feature vinyl DJs most weekends)
- I love working at Munich’s public libraries, such as the Gasteig and the Jusistische Bibliothek, which has a reading room straight out of Harry Potter
- Frenchie spot Chez Fritz is our go-to for date nights.
- I always tell visiting friends to check out the Haus der Kunst, which started as the Nazi party’s art institution and today has turned that history upside-down by displaying progressive, modern art. The museum gets bonus points for its Goldene Bar—the perfect place for a post-art cocktail.
- And of course, you can’t forget the Biergartens! There’s nothing better than drinking a cold Helles with a picnic lunch in the sunshine. Our favorite is Zum Flaucher, which is only accessible by walking or biking through the beautiful riverside park.
What are your tips for newly arrived expats?
My ultimate tip is to dive in head first. Use social tools like Meet Up and Facebook groups to connect with people who share your interests and hobbies. Follow local resources (like IsarBlog, curt Magazine and of course City Starlings) on Instagram for tips on events and local spots to check out. On weekends, grab a cheap Bayern Ticket and hop a train to explore highlights of our region, from day hikes in the Alps, beautiful towns like Nuremberg, Garmisch and Rothenburg ob der Tauber, or historical sites like Dachau and Schloss Neuschwanstein.
Tell us about your latest business and how you got started. i.e What was your background before your current profession? What products/services do you offer?
I run my own small business, Red Clay Paper, offering stationery, calligraphy and design services. Most of my work is with weddings. I help brides and grooms to create custom invitations, Save-the-Date cards, and other details for their big day. But some of my favorite projects are not wedding-related, such as custom logo and branding for small businesses, spot calligraphy for websites and publications, baby announcements and custom personal stationery.
In my former non-expat life, I was a litigation attorney practicing employment law. I worked with individuals and businesses on employment-related cases, such as discrimination and harassment claims. On the side, I took calligraphy and letterpress courses at local art schools. I also did some calligraphy and paper design for friends as a hobby.
But when we moved abroad for my husband’s work, I realized it would be impossible to continue a full-time practice since we move so often. Not to mention I don’t have a German law license. Although I still work as a freelance attorney part-time, moving abroad pushed me to turn what was a hobby into a full-fledged business.
Now, two years into Red Clay Paper, I’m working with clients all over the world create meaningful, custom paper for celebrations and businesses. The cornerstone element of my work is handwritten calligraphy and lettering, so I aim to combine some old-world handmade authenticity with fresh, modern design. I truly believe that paper is a source of tangible joy, whether it’s a snail mail card in your friend’s mailbox or a wedding invitation that will be an heirloom you’ll always have to remember your celebration.
I’ve found real purpose in my work as a stationer and calligrapher, creating physical pieces that are meaningful to my clients. My new career is one of many happy accidents resulting from our expat life!
Elizabeth is a lawyer-turned-creative American expat, living now in Munich after stints in Nuremberg and in Mexico City. Through her calligraphy and design company, Red Clay Paper, she works with clients around the world to create authentic paper designs for weddings, brands and meaningful celebrations. On the weekends, you’ll find Elizabeth exploring new hiking trails or biking along the Isar with her husband and hound dog, Huxley.