At Home in Germany

For the past two weeks I have been traveling. During some of the more difficult moments in India, I longed for home. When I imagined it, I did not picture Germany, but either my family’s home on Long Island or my apartment in Albany.

Once I realized this tendency, I reflected on it throughout the trip. A sense of home has been important to me for a long time. In a college course called Contemplation in the American Landscape, I remember specifically confronting this issue while reading Wisdom Sits in Places and At Home on the Earth. As I became more interested in subjects like environmentalism and politics and in authors like Derrick Jensen, I found myself wondering about this even more. As a wanderer and American of European ancestry, the concept of home can be confusing.

I can pinpoint some moments where I felt at home and the connection and comfort that it generates. During my frequent walks through Caumsett State Park near the place I grew up on the North Shore of Long Island. When I returned to the Vassar College quad and library a year after graduation. At the Taste of New Paltz festival staring at the Shawangunks after moving back to the Hudson Valley. Sitting on a rock aside the Trinity River after a day of farming in Hoopa, California. In a hammock reading social work textbooks in V’s backyard in Albany. This exhibits the shifting nature of my sense of home, but it also highlights the importance of ritual and order in my life. In all of those instances, I was in the presence of the familiar, often in places related to nature or meaningful work. In those trying moments in India (the discomfort of which I can most commonly attribute to the general disorganization), my calmness-seeking mind did not immediately linger on German-made memories.

As soon as the airplane began its descent, the green landscape of Germany beckoned me. Even when the farmland gave way to the airport tarmac, its cleanliness and structure soothed me. I had told V that I would not feel at home until we stepped into our apartment, but I was wrong. When my feet hit the jetway, I told him so. Germany is home right now, and I’m happy about that.

While Thanksgiving is not celebrated here, V. and I initially planned to host a holiday dinner for our new friends. Upon making our India travel arrangements, we realized that this would be impossible and that we would simply skip the holiday this year. Always a person reflecting on my blessings, I was sad to miss the opportunity to really sit with gratitude in the way I attempt to each Thanksgiving. I feel compelled now to list the things I am grateful for about my life here in Germany, things that I have been reminded of in the short twenty-four hours since I returned.

I am filled with gratitude for…

– clean, winter brisk air and ice blue sky
– my daily walks through the apple orchard
– a city that is pedestrian friendly
– the space and time to practice yoga
– safe food that can be consumed raw
– warm showers equipped with doors
– a comfortable couch on which I can lay with V
– silence

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Right Now in the Face of What Ifs

The Occupy protests are underway in the United States. Daily, I read news coverage of different occupations and their developments. I am inspired by the people who are currently dedicating their lives to raising awareness around issues of income inequality and corruption. A movement of this sort feels sorely overdue. While I sympathize specifically with the Occupy protestors, I am happy whenever real political and larger systems discussions take place. The level of participation and listening that is occurring within these groups is remarkable, and I hope it will provide an example for future communities and forums.

Yet, I am living in Germany while this all transpires.

A friend wrote to me that she visited the Occupy Albany site a few times. She wrote that if I was still in Albany, she knew I would be there. I think she is right. Often, I have ached to be participating in these actions. What if I was still in New York?

For every big decision a person makes, one is faced with a series of what ifs. The Occupy Movement is just another what if for me. While I can suppose that I would be participating, I do not know if that is true. Perhaps my job would have prevented active participation. Perhaps I would have had a bad experience at an encampment and left.

The truth is that this longing does not serve me very well and all I really have is right now. I can become hung up thinking about the what ifs, or I can celebrate that I took a risk and squashed a major what if that would exist if V and I didn’t come here: What if I never moved to Germany?

So, I hold the moment near, see all of the possibilities I do have, and try my best not to squander a thing.

In this particular case, I participate the best I can. I share stories and articles via social networking. I participate in conversations and debates with friends and family in the US, and new friends here in Germany. I consider my actions and choices and how they contribute to the very problems that OWS is highlighting.

This is very good training for the mountain of what ifs I will face over my lifetime. This is a practice in acceptance. This is a showcase of possibility. This is a celebration of now.

Language Learning Langsam

I arrived in Germany on July 14. That was exactly four months ago.

Mein Deutsch ist nicht gut.

Granted, I spent my six weeks in Germany preoccupied by my social work licensing examination. I returned to the US for two weeks. My German course only began on September 26.

But still, shouldn’t I know more by now?

About two weeks ago, I began to assess my language learning barriers. The most obvious culprit is my course. While I enjoy the nonthreatening environment it provides to practice speaking, the course is painfully slow. With eleven languages, students who have never been students, students who play multiple roles outside the classroom (mother, worker, caretaker, etc.), and students who are perfectly happy to speak anything except German every moment they are outside the classroom, so much class time is spent repeating material that could easily be drilled at home or practiced in the community. Considering that we are in the classroom fifteen hours per week, I feel that we have learned far too little.

However, I know that I cannot place the burden of blame simply on my course. V. takes a course that meets even less frequently, but he is progressing quite well. He has put many hours of time studying on his own. We both began the computer program Rosetta Stone, but he is much further along than I am. He also approaches the endeavor differently, carefully studying the lessons and seeking answers to parts he does not understand fully. Since realizing this, I have recommitted myself to the program and I already notice that my knowledge is growing. I also keep my dictionary near and when I think of any word that is important to me I look it up, knowing that this vocabulary will help in future conversation and writing.

V. also goes to work, thereby having the whole day to encounter the language. I, on the other hand, typically come home from school and immediately reach for my computer. Here, I can read any news I desire in English. I work on my website, which is in English. I long for social connection and I can instant message, e-mail, or Skype with any of my English-speaking family and friends. Before this era of connectivity, I would have been faced with stumbling through German much more often if I wanted to remain the socially curious individual that I am. My new remedy to this is actively getting out of my house. I noticed that when I go grocery shopping alone, it forces me to speak German and encounter it in signage, so I know I must actively seek out similar experiences. Through my town’s international society, I have been linked to two area college students for language exchange. I also started to attend yoga class, which is an excellent method to hear the repetition of German words very slowly. I am trying to read the community newspaper more. V. and I are even spending some time at home speaking to one another.

It is also difficult to get practice in because many people love to speak English. When I started to meet with my language exchange buddies, for example, it would be quite easy to spend our hour simply speaking in English. They are both excited to learn about the United States. Their English is already quite good, but they want to know more about the subtleties and slang of conversational English. Honestly, I would love to spend the hour speaking about all of these things with them, but I’ve told them that I really must practice my German. Additionally, the friends we have made are primarily through V.’s job, and they are primarily young and educated, which means that they also speak English. It is so easy to default to English speaking because there is just so little that I can convey in German right now. I cannot have an animated conversation in German about politics or feminism, so I excitedly turn to English during every social encounter and our friends don’t seem to mind.

Perhaps I could title this post Language Learning with a Weak Ego. When I assess my difficulties honestly, I know that my lack of confidence is a major contributor in my slow acquisition of the German language. Ever a perfectionist, I prefer to use sentences that I have carefully crafted and confirmed as grammatically correct rather than generating sentences spontaneously. However, German sentence structure is odd and changing, and there is simply no way I can memorize the variety of sentences. I know I must experiment. I must ask my conversation partner to slow down (langsam bitte) or repeat her sentences (Kannst du es nochmal wiederholen?). I must trip over my words and listen to the constructive criticism of my audience. Most of all, I must remember that in any new learning endeavor, we all begin as a beginner. Ich muss es einfach akzeptieren is my new mantra. It essentially means I just have to accept it.

Die schönen Wälder von Baden-Württemberg - Oktober 2011

In my German class, there is a 75-year-old man from the Ukraine. He is obviously outgoing and joyful, but he speaks no English so our interactions are extremely limited. One day, he passed a note to me. “Ihr seid Elstern.” He pointed toward me and my classmate, a woman from Taiwan with whom I sit and share notes and laughs throughout the daily class duration. I reached for my German-English dictionary. Elstern means magpie. He was calling us birds because of our chatting and giggling! We crafted our response: Du bist unartig! He followed our lead, grabbing his German-Russian dictionary, wide-eyed as he noticed the meaning of unartig: naughty or wicked. Warum? (Why?), he wrote back. Ihr seid nicht Elstern! (We are not birds!), we retorted. He concluded, Ich bin lustig (I am funny) and sealed it with a smiley face.

Language presents the opportunity to connect with others. With the help of our dictionaries, I was able to laugh and get to know someone from a completely different place, with a very different life from my own or others with whom I am intimate. Imagine the stories he could share and the conversations we could have if we both knew more. This is my motivation.

Aalen – My Community

Two Saturdays ago, V and I attended dinner at his colleague’s home. The coldness has been setting in here in Aalen, so we debated if we would walk or bike ride. While I love my bicycle and brought it with me from the states, I have been a chicken to do much riding here. Yes, Aalen beats Albany in regards to bike-ability, but I’ve been a bit worried about injury (there are so many steep hills, and a hill is where I had a major spill two years ago) and having my bike stolen (preferring leisure rides to using my bike as transportation, requiring it to be locked up unattended). V, always pushing me to be more, reminded me of the freedom the bike would provide us in the evening, freeing us from long, cold walks between locations. We bought a bicycle light earlier in the day, and set off on our adventure around 7 pm.

On the first downhill, I was instantly reminded of how I love biking. There is something about the activity that absolutely transports me back to being a child; I feel simultaneously nervous and gleeful with the wind in my face, picking up speed. I also spent some of my mid-twenties biking my neighborhood at dusk, getting to know the landscape in a more intimate way than in a car, but covering more ground than I could on foot. On this night, I got to see Aalen like that, and it was exhilarating.

The co-worker and his family have a sixteen-year-old exchange student from America living with them for the whole academic year. It was lovely to meet her, my first encounter with an American transplant stationed here in Aalen (V aside). A feeling of kinship washed over me upon hearing her American English accent. Over our meal, we three Americans explained some regional pronunciation (concussion as kin-kuss-shun) and slang terms (diss) to the German family. It is fascinating to notice the strangeness of our native language and remarkable to see how much understanding is nearly implicit among same-language speakers. My experience here in Germany is making my respect of and compassion for immigrants grow immensely. I am thankful to live in an age where technology lessens the heartache of longing, as familiar voices and words easily accessible via the computer.

I was also happy to learn that this family of five does not have their own car, instead participating in a car cooperative with four other families primarily for ethical and environmental reasons. I am slowly meeting the like-minds.

In the evening, we headed to our home base bar (the one adjacent to the hotel we stayed in our first two months) and met with another American, a middle-aged man V met when I was back in the US a month ago. He has lived in Germany for twenty years, but he retains an American accent. He guided us to a different bar where an open mic show was occurring. V and I have been asking about open mics and heralding their awesomeness to all of the young people we meet. We had been told that they did not exist in the town, and we imagined trying to negotiate with our bar to host one when we have been here a little longer. The bar was completely stuffed with patrons and we watched two batches of young boys play American hard rock music. I am not fully adjusted to seeing sixteen-year-olds in bars, but they played pretty well and the audience was all ages. I spoke briefly with the promoter who said the shows happen just once every two or three months. Still, this is a good indicator about the music community in this town.

I rode my bicycle home under the moonlight, feeling a stronger excitement about and connection to my new community than I have before.

I HAVE TO learn German.

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.

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?