The Crazy Americans Host Their First Party

One of the things that brought V and I together is our love of others. Accustomed to dating introverts, both of us express the joy we have had in finding romantic partners that are socially compatible. While we both have strong independent sides, we find it rewarding to host a successful gathering, and we define success through fun and laughter. Furniture delivered on Thursday, we decided to give it our first go here in Deutschland on Saturday.

Ever since we began accepting invitations to people’s homes, I have been nervous about hosting a dinner party here. I love to cook, and when I farmed in California I frequently prepared the staff lunches, sometimes doing this solo for as many as fifteen people. However, the German appetite is impressive in its size and it begs for meat. A newspaper quote that V’s co-worker shared with him during one of their impromptu Deutsch lessons perfectly highlights this: I would rather have lice in my cabbage than a meal with no meat. I have recently started eating meat on occasion, but I have very rarely prepared it; I certainly do not want to prepare meat for guests, as my vegetarian recipe repertoire is tested and strong. Anxiously, I went ahead and planned a moderately difficult, but hearty vegetarian menu: a roasted vegetable pasta bake (with homemade marina), garlic bread, sweet and spicy carrots, and sesame string beans.

Having no car means that I frequently grocery shop. I am used to this, preferring to walk even when I owned a car. Additionally, living healthfully as a vegetarian means frequent fresh produce pick-ups. Still, when having a party, a car is nice to carry all the requisite items. We did not definitively decide on the dinner until Friday, so our shopping needed to be done in one giant trip on Saturday morning. V suggested we ask the grocery store if we could borrow a cart and bring it back. He also accused me of being scared when I rejected this, reasoning that the shopping carts required coin deposits expressly so that people would not remove them from the store (granted, I do often try to think of alternative solutions to ones that would include long, strange communications in German). Fortunately, I thought of an idea we both liked: we could bring our suitcases to the grocery store.

Before moving to Germany, I wondered how long it would take before we were known as “The Crazy Americans.” We both decided that we would like to assimilate well-enough, but there are also particular, externally noticeable things I refused to give up, like wearing sneakers (I walk everywhere and am prone to shin splints) and my DITC hat (my hair goes under it whenever it’s dirty, which is often since I don’t like to shower). I don’t think either of us wants to be less outgoing either, a trait that clearly marks our American-ness. Now that we have discovered the ease of carrying groceries in suitcases, I suspect that it is not long until that title actually surfaces. Honestly, I don’t know how people in my hilltop neighborhood bring their goods home, as not everyone has vehicles and so many grocery items here are packaged in heavy glass.

“The Crazy Americans are trudging up the hill with their suitcases again. Don’t they know about the grocery delivery service?”

Our transport scheme freed us to buy everything we wanted, and as we loaded up on beverages we learned that our guest list confirmations were increasing from two couples to three…. plus a Lebanese friend… plus a Chilean (Spanish-only speaking) mother. Did I already write how well composed German dinner parties and homes are? Nearly every space that we have visited appears as though it is out of some modern furniture and interior design magazine. I never experienced this kind of intimidation in the USA despite being considerably wacky in my lifestyle choices (by the masses’ standards, at least). Yet, here there are things that provoke worry, as I do not know the full social implication. There is no way I will ever have ten chairs to put at my dinner table; will I demonstrate a great cultural discourtesy by asking my guest to eat while sitting on a drum stool?

Relax.

When the dinner finally did go down, it was great. We received kind gifts from all the German couples: a traditional basket of bread and salt, rosemary and thyme plants especially for me (I had mentioned my affinity for herb gardening), and a beautiful Ginseng Ficus. The guy who provided the Ficus said in his low, lingering voice, “Oh, yeah… we fihgured you needed something green ooor something like that.” “That’s all?” I questioned, “You were supposed to tell me the story of the Japanese man who moved to Germany. He brought a special Ficus plant with him. When a German man moved next store, the Japanese man prepared a cutting for him and gave it as a welcoming gift. Now, everyone in Germany gives these as housewarming gifts because that German man lived to be 100 years old.” “You mean 110,” he added and laughed, “Oh… oh… you kiiiihhll me,” he said in that same deep voice, a statement he often makes to V as well. The conversation throughout the meal was playful. We shared a toast with our guests, thanking them for being our first visitors and for the times they had already invited us into their homes. The food was enjoyed and complimented, and second helpings were had.

After the meal, we pulled out the big gun: Rock Band. When V professed his love of this game early in our relationship, I wondered if I could actually continue dating him. I had never played it, but I doubted its worth. I was sorely mistaken: This may be one of the best party games ever. Essentially, people team up as a band to perform songs by pushing buttons on instruments and singing into a microphone that are synched to a videogame system. It’s karaoke multiplied by a thousand. Awesomely, V has a projector, so we play it big screen too. When I pretentiously thought I was above this game, how I wish I could have fast-forwarded in my mind to sitting in Germany, in a dimly lit living room, playing I Want to Break Free with people from various countries, a Lebanese guy performing the part of Freddy Mercury. Even the Chilean momma laughed and loved that rendition.

Some people departed, but six of us remained to eat the delicious tiramisu prepared by one of our guests, S. A gentle, smiling, vegetarian woman, S attracted me upon first encounter. She does not live in Aalen, but will soon when she finishes her PhD in a few months. She even prepared some tiramisu for me without coffee as I mentioned that I do not like it much. I never was able to fully enjoy this dessert because when it was placed in front of me as a child I was always simply enduring the coffee taste and now I just do not choose it when offered final course selections. It’s delicious. After this, V and I taught the late-stayers the card game Asshole, which they picked up fast, including the whole bit about bossing around those lower than you in the pecking order. Then, of course, we could not help but to get in another few rounds of Rock Band before calling it quits around 2 AM.

While we may look silly in our sneakers dragging grocery-filled suitcases up a hill, no one would say The Crazy Americans don’t know how to throw a party.

The Cooperative Kino

Last week, we discovered the cooperative movie theater.

The cooperative concept is something dear to me, but I have never considered or encountered a movie theater operating under this business model. This particular venue has over five hundred and thirty co-owners. It runs by a team of eighty volunteers, the majority of whom are owners. To my knowledge, there is only one salaried worker, and that is the bartender.

Yes, there is a bar at this theater.

Last Tuesday was our first evening there. One of V’s co-workers, M, invited us to a show about the north coast of Germany. This is a film where the visuals did most of the speaking, so we decided it would be appropriate given our limited language comprehension. After purchasing our tickets, we each grabbed a half-liter beer that we were permitted to bring into the theater. I was completely excited. In my younger years, I had tried smoking joints before entering the cinema, but given the length of previews in the US, the majority of the high was gone before the movie even began. There was also the time I wound up sneaking beers into a movie, but the bottle clanking and associated nervousness made me vow to never attempt this again. Now I get to sit with a beautiful beer glass and drink openly with all of the other patrons? The novelty of this alone made me blissful.

I liken this facility somewhere between my hometown independent movie theater and the bookstore slash casual theater of my favorite fictional town. The auditorium is quiet small, with perhaps eight rows of normal theater seats, with just six to eight chairs per row. In front of these are two rows of leather couches. The row closest to the screen is a collection of beach-style chairs that lean back to save the customers from pain that stems from being too close to the screen. Before the film started, a volunteer (to whom V and I spoke before M arrived) introduced not only the feature, but also the two American transplants to the audience. The theater is definitely a comfortable, community space.

The theater's pub and the doorway to the patio.

On Friday night, we decided to return. The location rarely shows English language films, but I really liked the vibe and I was curious if the bar hopped regardless of the cinema schedule. Plus, the bar is quite beautiful in that it is all wood with a large outside area. There was a good crowd of primarily middle-aged patrons. I was able to check out the bulletin board and noticed that musicians sometimes played. Sitting at the counter, V and I spent our time talking with the barkeep and a volunteer owner, J. J was amazing, sweet, and someone I would like to be. She professed her hate for having only one job, and is currently employed as a social worker helping the disabled in their homes and as a German language teacher at the local technical college. She invited us behind the scenes, where I promptly shushed V’s loud talking since a film appeared to be running. “Hey, it’s okay! We only have one today and he asked for an intermission smoke break,” the young, male projectionist told us in near perfect English. We meet the old projector, Emma, named after a children’s book train. Commenting on its durability, J said, “They don’t make them like this anymore. If they did, they would never sell any new ones.”

J and the young projectionist spend a bit of time lightly arguing about the value of Emma versus the new digital machines that the co-op is considering buying. We ask about the economic state of the theater, given that it is a Friday night and there is only one customer, “Sometimes there are shows like this. We always break even, but we could not do it without the volunteers.” I learned the Deutsch word for volunteer earlier in the evening as I asked J about opportunities: ehrenamtlich, a word with the root honor. As much as the English word volunteer suggests acting of one’s own volition, I know the concept is often tied up with the drudgery of requirements for high school students or corporate employees. Having honor directly in the word elevates the status nicely. “Alright, paying customer is back!” the projectionist remarked, shooing us away so the lone patron could get his money’s worth.

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.

Four Foreigners and a Barbecue.

Last Saturday, V’s coworker, A, invited us to a barbecue at her home. Her husband, S, lives in The Netherlands and they take turns every two weekends visiting one another. He would be around and the weather was lovely, so the plan was made.

The gathering was just the four of us, four non-Germans (A and S are originally from the Ukraine) in a German backyard for a barbecue of typical German fare. S set up a tiny, charcoal unit. As he put it together, it resembled a child’s Playskool toy. I imagined one swift flick of his wrist sending the grill soaring to the other side of the yard. “Where we are from, we always used wood to cook the meat,” he told us in his thick Russian accent, adding, “At least they have really good meat here.” V later admitted his initial intimidation by our burly host, but I found the accent charming and familiar, having been privy to Slavic culture often enough. A’s accent is not as strong, but her look is classically Eastern European. In character, she is slightly eccentric and very refreshing, saying off the cuff remarks and employing wildly animated gestures. V captured a great photo of the couple: A impulsively jumped on S’s back, one arm around him, the other towards the sky, while S swigs from a bottle of beer. The picture could easily be a figure skating pair performing the gold medal-winning move in the stereotype Olympics. A has a rambling manner of forming her silly musings, and she frequently checks with S in quick Russian for English words she cannot recall. “She actually used to be good at English, but now she’s forgotten it since she’s learned German,” S says. V and I can only hope our German will be as good as her English.

We feasted on various types of meat, a few slices of buttered bread, and some potatoes. S enjoyed shaking a bottle of German beer and using his thumb to direct the alcoholic explosion over the food and flames. I prepared a salad of mixed greens with feta, onion, strawberries, almonds, and a balsamic reduction. Our hosts said they never had strawberries in a salad before, but I think they liked it. I anticipate hosting many dinner gatherings in the coming months, and I am curious for the reactions towards our typical meals.

We inquired about the couple’s experiences in Germany, excited to get a real immigrant perspective on the land we have only known for a month. They shared a story of going back to a pet store after a rabbit they had purchased from it a few days earlier died. S imitated the pet shop employee: “Vhere is zee body?” After they informed him that they buried the animal and were not looking for a refund, the cashier added, “You haaf to weturn an item dat ez bad, you bring et beck! Vee vant to know vhat is vrong vit zee wabbit!” They recounted a drunken experience near Berlin that included running across the Autobahn in the middle of the night. “There was blood on your legs too,” A laughed, never indicating from where the blood came. There were more stories, but I’ll just leave you with the fact that I advised V to never going hiking or drinking with S if he wanted to remain alive and intact.

As it grew darker, the stories decreased until we were quiet on the grass. Those moments when you can just be with people without worrying about the silence are great ones that often indicate emerging friendships. We remembered that a meteor shower happened recently and we wondered if we could see any residual shooting stars. While the sky was not very dark, I realized that I had yet to really look at it here in Aalen. Our hotel is in the center of the town where the brightness really prohibits gazing. In this yard, we could detect some constellations and stars, and indeed a few made their way across the sky as we watched. It will never stop being neat that we live on a planet, all the northern land of which shares this same “sky” (view of outer space, is really what it is.) As we walked home, V remembered our night drive through the Colorado mountains when the stars were in front of us. He never would have thought he would live in Colorado, and now he lives in Germany. I have experienced that feeling a number of times, that feeling that happens when I reflect on my circumstances and realize that I never imagined I’d wind up quite exactly where I am. How cool is that? And what does it mean for where we will wind up in the future?

The Bigger Things.

As of now, my days are scheduled fairly clearly. My primary objective is to study for and pass my licensing exam. In addition to this, I fit exercise, letter writing, reading, and cooking into my days. However, my mind is starting to wonder about my post-exam life and the bigger things.

One of the most powerful exercises I have ever participated in was during my studies at The Institute For Integrative Nutrition. During our first weekend session, Debbie Ford led us in a practice of writing out our lives. First we wrote about three things we wanted to accomplish tomorrow, then a week into the future, then three months, then a year, five years, ten years, twenty years, and thirty years. None of us knew how far she would make us imagine; I remember hearing some sighs in the audience and watching people put their pens down. It was a difficult process, but it was important and revelatory for me. This now reminds me of an exercise I found later, namely Stephen Covey’s (founder of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) idea that we should craft our own eulogy that attends to four areas: family, friends, work, and community. This relates to the second principle: Begin with the end in mind.

I am neither a proponent nor denier of self-help gurus and works. I am an advocate of doing what works. What has always worked for me is having a vision. Purpose and meaning are of utmost importance to me, and I get frustrated and feel defeated when I have too many days that aren’t assisting in the movement towards some greater goal.

The thing is that right now, my goals are a little muddled. There have been drastic changes – destructions and reformations – in my life since I did that initial life outline. I engaged in a couple of true revisions where I tried to rearrange the details of my life’s outline in a concrete way. As I have again experienced a great, unexpected shift, I think it is time to do that process again.

Part of the problem is that because I’ve experienced all of these changes, I feel that my mind may try too hard to account for all the potential future game changes. I feel that there are endless formulations, and choosing a specific direction depends on multiple factors. So, what I’m trying to do now is sift through all these ideas and find the consistencies. What are the things that have always mattered and been attractive to me? What are the areas that I always want to pursue? What is always meaningful? Also, I think it is time to look at those longer-term goals – the ten year and twenty year ones – and figure out how I can attend to those today.

One goal that always remains: Take more and better photos

An important topic of discussion at Integrative Nutrition was working with clients that fear making big life decisions (like choosing a career path) because they worry about making the wrong choice and being locked in forever. (Side note: check out this recent New York Times article on Decision Fatigue that includes the etymological link between decide and homicide). We were encouraged to assist our clients in looking at their long-term goals and remind them that what they choose today does not mean they have to do that same thing in twenty years. We have to be gentle with ourselves and remember that it is ok to readjust. However, the bigger things – our values, dreams, and purpose – those don’t change and they are important guides for us in the difficult times.

So, it is time again to consider my values, dreams, and purpose and craft some plans.

(When In Doubt) Practice, Practice, Practice.

My days are filled with study. Usually, this is for my social work licensing examination, a test that I take early next month when I visit the United States. The license is not particularly helpful or necessary for any jobs that I could secure while here, but the thought of sitting for this exam in two or five or ten years when I return from Europe is even more daunting than preparing for it now. My typical weekday involves a whole lot of reading. I decided to banish the reading of novels, just as I had to do when I was in graduate school to ensure my sharpest reading attention was reserved for textbooks. Before my proclamation, I finished The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (that deserves a post all its own), choosing to lose time in that rather than Direct Social Work Practice and Contemporary Human Behavior Theory. It is not that I do not enjoy these books and the ideas they contain (I actually do like it a whole lot!), but rather that the prospect of the exam weighs on me heavily. I am quite worried about failing, slightly shocked by how often I come across questions where I deliberate between two answers that seem feasible to me. Doesn’t the absence of black-and-white, good-and-bad thinking mark a capable, effective social worker that is able to employ empathy and refrain from judging clients? Is it not the nature of social advocates to question right and wrong and encourage discussion to come up with the best solutions? Perhaps I am stretching a bit here, but this reframing sure makes me feel a bit better. Practice.

We have spent time with a few of V’s colleagues now. We visited someone’s house for dinner during the week and went to the lake to barbecue with a few others on Sunday (although rain required we move to a backyard halfway through the event). Both of these engagements involved such massive amounts of food, that I am continually shocked that I have seen only a handful of obese people in Germany. Additionally, the hospitality of all of our new friends continues to fly in the face of stereotypes of Germans as cold to newcomers. Everyone is quite generous with providing rides and food, helpful and patient as we practice our German pronunciation, and tolerant and even charmed as we ask questions that may be construed as inappropriate or invasive, but that are important as we orient ourselves to life here (Can we have a tour of your apartment? How much does this car cost?). I dream of when I know Deutsch better so that I can interact with far more people and on a better level. When my intensive classes begin at the end of September, I know my attention will go towards that. However, I can already recognize that I have a major hang up about appearing foolish and this inhibits me from engaging. Mistakes are inevitable and the longer I wait to speak, the more I will miss out on, I know. Yet, there is an intelligent mind and emotional mind disconnect. Practice.

A final development is that I assisted on my first wedding shoot. Early into our time here, someone at V’s job asked him to take some photos on their wedding day. It was not a grand ceremony, just the sharing of vows at town hall and a dinner in the evening, so between these events the couple wanted some portraits. Midday Friday, the bride and groom scooped V up from work and me from the hotel and we rode up the hills to a beautiful field. Each time we are lucky enough to ride out of Aalen I am awestruck at the green beauty of this place that I now live. With V’s encouragement, guidance, and vigor for photography, he is reigniting my own love of it. While I was just the backup for the particular day, I was pleased to come up with a few ideas and frame shots behind the camera. I am learning more of the technical aspects now and I hope that my emerging skills will enable me to bring the vision I have to life better. Practice.

To the Hofbrauhaus!

After a night at our local tavern that included us providing Deutsch counting lessons, punks with head tattoos of highly contested content, and stolen marijuana accusations that led to near physical assaults, V, Joan, and I had to wake up early to catch our train to Munich. Joan is a friend from my time in Albany, a woman whose passion for food and hiking matches my own, but whose capacity for dancing and libations far exceeds most anyone. She had been visiting Germany and Switzerland for several weeks and decided to spend her last days visiting Aalen and joining us for a weekend trip to the closest tourist city. Ideally, this is the start of semi-regular adventuring for V and me.

The first leg of the journey was unremarkable. My travel companions attempted naps in the cabin, despite the stale heat and continual door slamming. When we transferred, we wound up on a train with a large number of soccer match attendees en route. The young, sunglassed boys behind us amused themselves by practicing English and offering us beers from an older man’s crate of bottles (he was happy to share with fellow sports fans). It was approximately eleven in the morning, and both V and J succumbed to the pressures. Despite drinking relatively little the night before, I was reluctant to begin drinking so early, knowing that München would inevitably lead to a few pints. Instead, I enjoyed trying out some Deutsch from our invaluable and hilarious Lonely Planet phrasebook. I asked, Was für ein Sternzeichen bist du? Unfortunately, I have yet to memorize the Deutsch answers.

Are there lockers at every major train station in Europe? How I love them. Our hotel about twenty minutes from downtown, we simply shoved our goods into one €3 locker and began our walking tour of the city unburdened.

Aalen’s high temperature has been averaging about 60 Fahrenheit; Munich easily hit 82 that Saturday, making for a sweaty, but pleasing day on our feet. The best building of the day was the Neues Rathaus, even with missing the Glockenspiel performance. While my knowledge of history and architecture leaves something to be desired, I was overwhelmed in its presence. How many years and people does it take to craft such a structure? The creativity of the included carved figures and designs is remarkable. Honestly, I could have sat at the Marienplatz all day, scanning the building for new discoveries. Some other notable sites were the Englischer Garten and the surfers on the “perma wave” (aka water tube surge), the Viktualienmarkt and the fountains where people drink from the spouts and cool their beers in the pools, and numerous bachelor and bachelorette parties in traditional Bavarian clothing of cleavage baring dresses and lederhosen. Lunch and dinner consisted of typical German fare, with Abendessen being at the infamous Hofbrauhaus. What a pain in the ass it is to find a seat there, but it was worth the rowdy atmosphere and head-sized pretzel. In the evening, a wandering soul (born in Mexico, name of French origin, lives in Barcelona, travels extensively) invited us out with his friend. We wound up at a tight, dimly lit, wooden-everything bar with odd paintings suggestive of Bayerisch men’s extraordinary sexual prowess. V and I could not even fit a drink in us, so instead we laughed while watching through tired eyes groups of Germans dancing and singing to what I imagine is their equivalent of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.

Sunday’s weather was radically different. Storming. Cold. We picked up pastries for our subway ride to the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. My dorkiness and sentimentalism rears its head again; I easily could have stayed all day analyzing the crafts and I was moved by the knowledge that this whole, gigantic museum carried artifacts of people who have lived on this land for a far greater duration than us Americans of immigrant heritage can comprehend. Still thinking of all the meat from the day before, we opted for an Indian food lunch that was fantastic and nourishing. Indian is a cuisine that I could eat everyday and while much of my own cooking is inspired by its flavor profile, I desperately miss V’s mom’s specialties; every trip home to New Jersey meant a bounty of homemade, freezer-ready dishes bound to be warmed up over the coming weeks. The rain held long enough to visit the Hofgarten and Odeonsplatz (stunning in grandeur) before a quick trip to the Stadtmuseum and their Typisch München exhibit. It was nice to see paintings of the sites we had visited, but time warped one hundred fifty years or further into the past, with little figures depicted in radically different clothes, riding horses and picking market fish out of fountains. What must it have been like to live in the countryside and venture to a city like Munich for the first time?

In the end, this all felt much longer than 29 hours.

(I’ve included my first gallery in a post! Click the thumbnails below to see larger versions of my photos.)

Keep Change.

When Lauren, a dear friend, recently had her baby, we discussed the implications of becoming a parent. Frequently, people hear that “everything changes” once you have a child. Lauren remarked on this noting that while it is true, what we are not told is that things keep changing. Circumstances changed for my friend (initially staying home with her child, then having extended family assistance, and then her son moving to day care), as did the child’s developmental stage (getting ready for work in the morning was slightly easier before he had enough hand motor skills to pull her hair while breastfeeding).

I anticipate the day when I have children; the thought of being a parent evokes little anxiety. However, this discussion stuck with me and I find myself reflecting on it regularly. I am proudly plan-oriented (my close friends alternatively label me a bit more sinisterly). When I get hung up on my biological urges, I think of how having children would mean these constant routine adjustments. Now, I still anticipate, but I more wholeheartedly appreciate my current circumstances.

This move to Germany has disrupted my nature on so many levels and it continues to do so. I set a goal of getting a job straight out of graduate school, but love for people and adventure requires us to make modifications, don’t they? Here for three weeks, V and I are experiencing the changes that keep changing; we become accustomed to our little routines, but life obliges us to shift again. Many of these moments are important, necessary, and even joyous alterations (we signed a lease on our apartment, for example), but they are still difficult in their difference to the reality we finally got the hang of.


Then, I remember, that this is what life is. As plan-oriented as I fancy myself, few of my plans have ever gone exactly as I have outlined. It is the surprise, uphill climbs that require one’s best self to emerge and the curves in the path that bring beauty and novelty to the ordinary. Christ, this is my practice, and one important reason I named this little space of internet The Leaves Change; the way leaves vary shape and color with each move I make to a new location, and the cycle of birthing buds, to green sun-soaking leaves, to brilliant colors of surrender, to earthy mulch that keeps the root-filled ground strong, these are great reminders of diversity, transformation, and impermanence. While I diligently work to create some semblance of routine in my day to day to preserve my earthly sanity, the reminder that so much is unknown and that it will lead to good is what animates my spirit.

Things keep changing, and I keep change.

A Modest Account.

V’s birthday was on Friday, so we decided to take a hike up to Aalbäumle, a hilltop tower that overlooks the whole city of Aalen. While the Germans seem to be good at everything, I think they are quite poor when it comes to hiking trail signage. Perhaps the expectation for marked routes is purely American. Perhaps instead Germans have memorized the routes before setting off on a walk in the woods or that maps and markers are unnecessary given their special skills. However, this would not explain the misdirection provided by fellow path walkers that increased the trailhead to destination duration of about twenty minutes to ninety.

A tower-top picture by V.

We eventually made it to the tower, and did so without killing or injuring each other (thus escaping the fate of many significant others when lost together and debating potential route rightness). We ate our packed lunch while trying to read the Deutsch graffiti and feeling the tower tremors as each fellow visitor ascended and descended the narrow stairway. The view was quite spectacular, even given that it was a cloudy day. I thought back to December when I drove to a scenic viewpoint in Boulder, Colorado, gazing down at the city and plains beyond it and wondering if that would be my home come May. I prefer this view: rolling green hilled farmland next to towns of red roofed buildings next to farmland and repeated again. Boulder captivated me with the lifestyle I believe I could have easily lived there, but Aalen is beautiful and challenging.

The path trailhead is at the Limes-Thermen, a mineral bath destination that appears to play an important part in the city’s tourism. We paid our fee, changed in the unisex locker room (changing stalls are provided), and endured the stares of many as we entered the first pool. We are still not sure if the looks were due to our obvious awkwardness, because of V’s skin color or hairy chest, because we spoke English, or just because there is little else for most people to do when soaking in warm mineral water aside from gawking. We tried the various pools, inside and out, small and large.

Then, it was time for the sauna.

A kind worker directed us to the sauna area. “Zoot,” she motioned near her crotch, “Ooff!” she pushed her hands away from her body, indicating bathing suit removal was expected beyond the turnstile.

I once visited a spa in Queens with some friends from yoga class. There, the clothing optional areas were single-gendered. I remember the many women and girls (primarily of Korean descent) brushing one another’s hair in front of rows of mirror, scrubbing their own feet, and jumping in small pools. I’ve gone skinny dipping a few times, including with a group of boys in the midnight ocean waves in Long Beach Island. I shared open showers and topless tribal dances with women in the woods of a Michigan festival. I do not consider myself prudish and I do not think nudity must only be reserved for sexual encounters. I know stories of the German saunas.

Yet, I still felt very modest! I think this is because for every one female in the sauna area, there were ten men. And also because it was daylight, and the areas between saunas are bright; people walked naked between various rooms and laid on lounge chairs, their bodies on overt display. Being that it was Friday, the facility was not particularly crowded either, but the shyness of exposing my relatively young, female body in front of all these older men was strong. So, I didn’t. I went between and into saunas with my towel wrapped around me, as did V who had not attended a sauna or experienced communal nudity before. The damp sauna was amazing, with a series of lights on the ceiling that faded in and out and added to the trance-inducing experience. There was a fellow there, bear-like and determined, who stood and scrubbed his whole body down with salt that was provided near the entrance, making me feel as though I was at a watering hole where animals soak and clean. I made a mental note to determine if there are women-only hours at this particular facility and to use the exfoliating salt myself next time.

Salad, potato with yogurt, and African-spiced steak.

We had dinner at a lovely restaurant in the pedestrian area of town. We were waited on by a young woman whose English was Irish-accented (having been born there and moving to Germany at twelve years old), and who gently corrected our German as per our request. The prices are quite reasonable, especially given the quality and portions. When we were full and pleased, we wandered to our new, favorite little bar to play darts, practice German, and share beers with friends from the hotel and the locals. I am not sure if it is this town or if it is us, but the rumors are proving false: Germans are not wholly unfriendly with new people, as they have been welcoming and warm in the vast majority of our interactions. Perhaps they are even a little too friendly at the bar. By the end of the night, I was requesting water and nearly falling asleep on the table, having consumed a drink or two too many provided by our generous new friends.