With Words, I Combat Isolation

On my recent trip home to the United States, friends and family asked me how I was adjusting to Germany. Truthfully, I had not compared my life locations very much as the past several weeks were preoccupied with studying for my licensing exam (on which I thankfully kicked ass despite nearly having a panic attack when hitting the “ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO SUBMIT YOUR EXAM? THERE IS NO TURNING BACK NOW!” button). Now that I have thought about this more thoroughly, I realize that life is not so different here. The change between my days as a non-profit program director in Poughkeepsie and as a farmer on a Native American reservation in Northern California feels more drastic than this transition on most levels. The commonality between these moves to Hoopa and Aalen is the isolation, although in the former it was due to race relations and the latter is now because of language.

A differing language actually has some advantages. One of the first things I noticed back home is the overwhelming nature of chatter. As I rode public transportation (in a fourteen hour travel stupor) from the airport to my home, the conversations of those nearby was quite bothersome, most of it very vapid. Additionally, for those that speak English here in Aalen, they are typically excited to practice with me when they discover I am American and an immediate, happy conversation occurs. Yet, most connections so far are a little shallow. There are a few co-workers of V’s that I trust will become close friends, but I have yet to forge a deeper connection with a stranger that I have met, enough so that I at least want to ask them to socialize. From yoga classes to nutritional yeast to infoshops, there are many things, events, and places that I cannot find or access here, and German language ability would undoubtedly ease this. There is no way that I will really know Aalen as a community and culture until I can speak and understand the prevailing language.

On Monday, I began my Deutsch Klasse. Since my first day back in Germany last Thursday, V and I have been staying at our apartment. The walk to town is downhill and cuts through an old apple orchard early on. It requires about twenty-five minutes to travel door to classroom, just a tad more than my daily graduate school stroll through Washington Park in Albany. I cannot vouch enough for a morning walk, especially when the air is slightly chilly; there is nothing better to really awaken one and ready them for learning or work. I don’t know why I fought so hard against period one gym class in high school, and I now think such activity should be compulsory to promote student achievement.

The Apple Orchard En Route to Town

There are sixteen students ranging in age from 18 to 75 and hailing from eleven countries: China, Taiwan, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Latvia, Israel, India, Argentina, Pakistan, and the good old US of A. There is one person who has been in Deutschland for one month and one who has been here for three years. The vast majority of my classmates are taking the classes as part of Integration requirements as they seek permanent resident or citizenship status. For now, I am simply requesting a student visa; while course and content is the same for all of us, it is acceptable for me to miss classes on occasion, such as when I travel to India in a couple of months. Class is five days per week for 3 ¼ hours per day.

Since I moved here, I have indeed learned some German (through the help of Rosetta Stone and fellow pub patrons). I feared the classes would be too basic, but school officials assured me that it would be impossible to learn enough on my own to skip the introductory level. While these first three days have been rather slow, they are still important; each session requires lots of speaking, which is my area of least confidence and practice. Since some students know no German, it is helpful to lean over and attempt to explain difficult topics to them (although the vast majority do not know English either). My classmates all appear to be upstanding and patient people, and so far I don’t mind spending my mornings with them. It certainly eases the isolation.

Welcome to Underwear Town.

Our new home is in a neighborhood called Triumphstadt (roughly pronounced tree-OOmf-SHtadt). I remember hearing that name from our relocation specialist and liking it, feeling it an appropriate name to bolster V’s and my self-confidence in our new move. It was only after we signed the lease that a friend asked me, “Oh! Have you been to the Triumph outlet yet? They have wonderful panties.” Triumph, I learned, is the name of a company that has a main office and distribution center on the edge of our new neighborhood. So, where we are moving is really not all that glorious in name, but rather is now what I fondly call Underwear Town.

The neighborhood is located south of the main town area, slightly up on the hill, making us closer to the network of trails around Aalbäumle. This is also a bonus because if we are ever running late for work or school, we head downhill. I already imagine myself racing down the streets on my bicycle in the morning, half-exuberant, half-terrified, clutching the brake as I often do since fast automatically equates to out of control in my mind. I got to do the reverse on Wednesday, hoofing it uphill to meet the movers. I noticed that the primary shortcut for our apartment cuts through a small park that is lined with apple trees, and I wondered if it is permissible for the public to pick fruit from them.

When I arrived at the house, I acquired the keys from my Schwäbisch-speaking landlord. She toured me through the apartment, motioning towards a door and heater that are kaputt. We communicated as best we can, which means I tried my hardest to speak German and understand her dialect since she knows not a word of English. There is more than one instance where we looked around the room for items to point at or motion to in an effort to physically express what our words could not convey.

Our building is divided into two apartments, one ground floor (ours) and one top floor. When I was outside studying our new patio, I saw our elderly neighbor appear on her balcony. She exuded classic Grandmother with a floral, un-tailored housedress, big glasses, and a halo of white-grey, cloudy hair. Since this was my first encounter with her, I pulled out every basic German phrase I know to describe who I am. My name is Elizabeth. I come from the USA. No, I’m not working. I was a social worker in the USA. I start German classes on September 26. V. is at work right now. No, we have no children, etc. etc.. Our Romeo and Juliet style conversation is exhausted after just seven or eight minutes, but we smiled and I told her that I’ll bring V. to meet her soon.

I heard the moving truck come before I saw it. I ran out to meet the workers, large blond men who simultaneously jumped out of the cabin and popped cigarettes into their mouths. They finished the smoke break and moved quickly to unload all of our items. I stood with an itemized checklist marking off each box as it entered our new home. Soon, the living room was full with brown paper packages (albeit, not tied up with string). The team informed me that we were to open as much as possible so I could inspect for damage on major items and so that they may take the garbage. I laughed, “It’s like Christmas!” and started slashing at my bicycle with my knife to release it from packing material bondage. Honestly, although these are items I already owned, it felt remarkably like opening gifts. Perhaps the excitement is related to the suddenness of having all of these familiar items around me after being in a foreign place for five weeks already. I have been debating with myself regarding if I brought too much with me; during this initial time in Germany, I have not exactly felt that I was lacking any material comforts. Yet, I have moved so many times that I have learned to pack, and I have trashed or donated things that are not very important. I know there are a few things that I am really excited to have access to again – much of my kitchen arsenal, a few books, some treasured artwork – but I’m sure that I am overdue for some item purging, resultant of living in one home for two years before this move (a record duration of stagnation since leaving for college).

These are a few of my favorite things.

When the moving men departed, I spent time going through boxes, moving them to their appropriate rooms and doing more assessments. A broken wine glass, picture frame, and vase are all that I have discovered thus far, which I say is pretty good for a journey of thousands of miles on road, ocean, and road again.

Last summer, V and I traveled to Costa Rica with friends. After dropping them off at the airport, we still had twenty hours to kill in San Jose since our flights were the next morning. We wandered the central market, and upon leaving a severe thunderstorm struck and rain flooded the streets. We headed back to the hotel, just in time for a happy hour where we could watch the torrent, safe under an awning and downing cheap, sugary drinks. I suddenly realized that we did not buy any souvenirs. Our trip was more adventure and activity focused, and we did no shopping. To remedy this, we drunkenly wandered over to the gift shop. I found a painted sign with the word Welcome buttressed by a Strawberry Poison Dart Frog and a distinctly colored Hummingbird. Ordinarily, I am not the type to buy cutesy sayings for home decoration, but the cocktail tipsiness heightened my gleeful recognition that we had encountered those same species of animals during our past week of travels. We’ll display this when we live together one day, I told V, and purchased the item.

I discovered the carefully wrapped sign on the top of one box. I had not opened the paper packaging since I purchased it. Seeing it again, it was just as kitschy as I remembered. When V. arrived at the apartment that evening, I greeted him by opening the door and holding the sign out at his eye level. The first thing we have to hang up is THIS.