‘My rent here is so low it’s a joke’
Wild Geese: Language specialist Orla McMahon, Hamburg
Orla McMahon: “Things are very intuitive here. Your wants are all fulfilled.”
Living in Hamburg means you get to enjoy the best of Germany, from great cultural offerings to football and 24-hour bars, says language specialist Orla McMahon.
“I thought I’d use it as a gateway to live in different places across Europe and beyond, but I ended up staying here.”
McMahon had completed an Erasmus programme at Hamburg University the previous year – 1995-1996. “I liked the city, and I had some contacts, so I got some summer work using my language skills.
“I started off doing a lot of proofreading and translation and then got into in-house training for media companies and working in logistics and advertising.”
For the first 10 years in Hamburg, she freelanced with media company Axel Springer Verlag, German Telecom and Microsoft. “I worked on a contract basis, teaching non-native English speakers about soft skills, getting them ready to give presentations and helping them write press releases.”
A lot of the work McMahon did with clients, including international logistics company Maersk, was in the area of cross-cultural communication.
“Things often get lost in translation, so when I was preparing people, getting them ready for working with English clients, we’d do lot in the area of intercultural competence, she says. “Mastering a language is one thing, but it’s just as important to learn about the cultural diversities and tone to optimise communications between the two parties.
“The sender of the message and the receiver of the message are from different cultures and backgrounds and there’s always so much to learn.”
Germans are famously abrupt, McMahon says, “so what works for Germans doesn’t necessarily work for Americans. Luckily, Germans are pretty straightforward and, as a task nation, see constructive critique as a means to betterment. They also like rules.”
For the last decade, McMahon has been working at the modern-language centre at the University of Hamburg.
“I teach media studies, politics, business and legal studies in English to students from all around the world. The standard of English amongst them is incredibly high and they are really enthusiastic and eager to learn, which helps.”
Since mid-March, McMahon has been teaching from home due to Covid-19. “I’ve been teaching my courses and connecting with my international team and students with the help of Zoom and other online portals. But it’s not the same.
“The whole point of college is the social aspect. How you learn languages and communicate is done in person, not online. I feel particularly bad for Erasmus students who arrived in March from Italy and Spain. They had to go home after a couple of days. But what can you do?”
McMahon says Germany has handled the pandemic and lockdown well and places such as restaurants and pubs opened before other countries.
“It’s been pretty seamless and certainly in line with work/life balance. We have 30 days of holidays, plus a high number of bank and public holidays annually. People love their time off. ‘Arbeit ist arbeit’ [work is work] they say, which means weekends and evenings are for switching off.”
The Dublin woman says Germans are sports mad and weekends are filled with cycling, football and outdoor pursuits. “Hamburg also boasts a great restaurant scene, great nightlife, bars, clubs, opera. There’s always something on here and it’s open all hours.
“I’m very settled here. We own a camper van and travel around Europe all the time. The best part is we can bring the dogs. You can go snowboarding in Switzerland or Austria in winter and drive around the Mediterranean in summer; it’s fantastic.”
As for Irish people coming over to live in Hamburg, McMahon strongly recommends it as a place to live.
“The quality of life that I have here is higher than I would have in Ireland. My rent here is so low its a joke. I’m about to move into a 90 square metre [just under 1,000sq ft] apartment for €950 per month with my boyfriend and dogs. It’s three times what I’m paying now and three times less than I’d pay back home.”
But she suggests learning the language will put you in a good position. “Everyone speaks English, but having good German does open up more opportunities. There’s always work here, but you pay a lot of taxes and health insurance. I think that has proven to be a positive thing as the German health system was very well set up to deal with coronavirus.”
McMahon warns people not to get put off by the bureaucracy.
“It can be very irritating and inflexible. People can be very straight and stubborn. They have high expectations, but things are very intuitive here. Your wants are all fulfilled. Public services are great, infrastructure is great. I really can’t complain, plus Germans are fun – much to the surprise of those coming to live here.”
McMahon says she has come to enjoy German punctuality. “People are reliable to a fault. If you order a plumber, he will come at the allotted time – earlier even. If you have a barbecue, everyone will come on time.
“There’s a lot of freedom here. You can really express yourself in Germany. You get treated like an adult, there’s a lot of scope. You can buy beer in a bakery, or party on the famous Reeperbahn where anything goes, but once you break the rules, you’re in trouble.”
McMahon says she visits Ireland regularly and misses Irish banter, but meets Irish friends who also live in Hamburg for catch-ups.
“I didn’t get to live in Rome or Paris, as I had planned, but I’m happy I got stuck here in the end.”