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Follow-up report: one year on from being flown back to Germany

Bodensee-Impression: Winter and Summer - teaser
© Jennifer Barton

From January - March 2020, Jennifer (27) was an intern in the cultural section of Goethe-Institut Wellington, and she was intending to stay on in New Zealand for some time after that. But the pandemic decided otherwise, and last year she and her fellow-intern Manja reported on their return home on a repatriation flight organised by the German government, and their first impressions on returning to Germany. A year has passed since then, including the challenges of completing her degree and finding a job during the coronavirus pandemic. But what happens if to take up your new position, as in Jennifer’s case, you have to leave Germany again?

By Jennifer Barton

Crossing borders in the age of Covid

In April 2020 I landed back in Germany after my 25-hour repatriation journey, and mentally too, there was a sense of coming back down to earth. After the initial relief and delight at reuniting with friends and family in these strange and unpredictable times, there were some basic practical matters to be dealt with, as a result of the Covid situation. The part-time job that had helped me to finance my study towards a degree in cultural management was no more; the business had cut the working hours of their permanent staff, so there were definitely no jobs for students. This was a problem faced by students throughout Germany. A state student aid package introduced in the middle of the year, for a maximum of 500 euro a month, provided at least some relief. But that assistance came to an end when I finished my studies at the end of September. Over the years I had reflected at length on what an ideal position might be for someone with my skills and attributes, but given the coronavirus situation, the question now became a more urgent one: during Covid, who on earth would even consider taking on staff in my area of work?

The 24-hour challenge

I did find a position – not in Germany, however, but in Austria, just over the border in Bregenz, on the shores of Lake Constance. Was relocating and starting a job abroad going to be easily doable during Covid? Easy, no – but it did prove to be doable. I was to start work at the beginning of January (“Januar” for us, but “Jänner” for the Austrians), so I decided to move house in December. The problem was that under the arrangements in place between Germany and Austria, anyone returning home after spending more than 24 hours in the other country was subject to a long quarantine period. So to spare my friends and family members that unnecessary ordeal, we took up, and met, the challenge of getting the move done and dusted within 24 hours – including crossing back into Baden-Württemberg before the deadline.

Between two worlds

Life in Austria was quite different from the situation I faced back home in Germany during my quarantine-free family visits of up to 72 hours permitted during the first half of 2021. Already in March, Vorarlberg became the first Austrian region to allow all shops and restaurants to open, subject to some conditions and restrictions (e.g. eating out only with a negative test result, limits on the number of people allowed in shops, etc.), but back home in Baden-Württemberg, as in other German states, more severe restrictions applied, to a greater or lesser extent as incidence values rose and fell. That meant that restrictions could be changed at short notice, and could differ from one district to another. The issue above all others became: when and where are the home improvement stores open? It may sound bizarre, but for many people, pottering about at home – in the garden, fixing things around the house, or fitting out a camper van – was the ideal way to keep busy during a lockdown, and that required frequent trips to a home improvement outlet.

The biggest challenge of commuting back and forth between Germany and Austria has been figuring out exactly what the entry and exit requirements are at border control points. And then there is the problem of “borders” that suddenly emerge out of nowhere. For example, after a cycle trip in Vorarlberg that took me over the Rhein, but not out of Austria, I was almost unable to return to Bregenz – simply because without realising it, I had ridden into an area that from one day to the next had been declared a zone of increased risk, which you needed a test to leave.
  • Jennifer at the Hardware store © Jennifer Barton
    During a weekend trip back home to Germany: as long as the home improvement stores are open, the good people of Swabia are still equal to the situation.
  • Bodensee-Impression: Winter and Summer © Jennifer Barton
    Two photographs as different as day and night – not a soul to be seen in January during the lockdown, but in summer the easing of restrictions brings the crowds back to lakeside in Bregenz, and fills the restaurants again.

From the waters of the Pacific to lakeside in Swabia

I have to say that in many ways, my new home often reminds me of New Zealand: here in Vorarlberg people go onto first name terms just as quickly as they did in Wellington, and the shores of Lake Constance (which borders Germany, Austria and Switzerland), with the mountain backdrop, exude a relaxed holiday atmosphere. New Zealand doesn’t seem so very far away, at least in my mind. But one thing that Covid has taught us over the last few months is that in spite of the difficulty or impossibility of visiting each other physically, we can stay in touch digitally, and exchange thoughts and stories with a single mouse click – a comforting thought when friends and family are an “ocean” away (even when the ocean in question is on the rather smaller scale of Lake Constance).