The last day of May marked my five-year anniversary in Germany. I remember stepping foot on German soil that day, trudging with three suitcases, two over-the-shoulder bags and a purse, attempting to make it up the escalator at the airport so I could board a train.
A kind and handsome stranger helped me with my luggage. I asked him how to say "gentleman" in German, and he replied, "Gentleman." My first German word, in Germany.
There is a lot I remember looking back, meeting so many new people, struggling through relationship and work challenges, and attempting to fit in as best I could. After five years, fitting in isn't that important to me, because here I am, and I fit.
Of those five years -- approximately a tenth of my life so far -- about seven accumulative months were lived in the USA, which included holiday visits, two several-week-long vacations to clear out my storage unit (twice), with three trans-continental journeys, plus a stint last summer when I went to play and work in the American Alps (the Rockies). Each time I left, I managed to make it back to welcoming arms and fresh pretzels.
Boy, am I blessed.
At the very beginning of those five years, I began a tough life course called die Wechseljahre. The most imperfect timing; not so much a blessing in my eyes, and completely unavoidable. Because I was new to this country and not as psychologically adaptable as the younger, more hormonally-balanced version of myself, early on in my suddenly-German existence I yearned to go home for regular visits in order to maintain some semblance of sanity. Starting a new life in a foreign country is stressful, and it must have shown. An American colleague back then counseled me that it takes at least two years to adapt to living overseas. Therefore, periodic returns to the U.S. were mandatory, and with those visits, spending time with friends and family, I made it through. Now, especially with U.S. government greed and corruption, being in Germany seems the more levelheaded thing for me to do. But that doesn't mean I don't still raise my eyebrows occasionally regarding my life and my unknown future, and that I have stopped learnng.
Miraculously I've made it to this milestone. What else have I gained besides a different kind of composure?
I have of course learned much more German than what I knew after three years in high school and two semesters in college. It has all come together into functional usage, and for the most part I can confidently converse easily with shopkeepers, German colleagues, and my German "family." My grammar and vocabulary aren't perfect, but they're much better than in 2012. Much of this I attribute to my German students and teacher friends, one B-2 level course at the Volkshochschule, and my exclusive teacher Heinie, who has taught me the most of all about life and language here.
What else have I accumulated? On display, for regular use and in boxes is a considerable collection of German and other European knick-knacks, postcards, Steifftiere, furniture and appliances. When I first arrived, accumulating one appliance at a time was a warning sign of settling in -- something I wasn't that sure I wanted to do, really. First came the hair straightener, then a used coffee maker, eventually a telephone, printer, vacuum cleaner and a refrigerator, and with more and more domesticity an iron, a very powerful blow dryer (nicknamed "Patricia" after the hurricane two years ago), and several other things that must be plugged in.
On my new laptop (another purchase since living here), on an external hard drive, and in the cloud, I have a huge collection of travel photos from ten different countries and a myriad more from different regions of Germany itself. I've visited so many castles I cannot count or remember them all. Each one amazes me. Each new town I visit is filled with such great architecture and uniqueness, I'd love to explore them all. Perhaps the best thing about being here is the opportunity to discover new places where things are... different.
Morning view out my bedroom window
I've also gained serenity. It's beautiful and green here, and my eyes feast every single day. I wake up to beautiful sunrises and go to bed hearing the sounds of the breeze rustling through the trees and birds putting themselves to sleep. I dive under my German duvet and sleep soundly most nights. Mornings and afternoons I walk in wooded hills and alongside mansions and palaces. The dark horizon at sundown outlines castle towers and church steeples. I have a new love of nature and a deeper gratitude for being alive. I love sticking my hand in the earth and watching my plants grow.
Most remarkable, less than six months after my arrival, I gained a partner. Heinie is extremely loyal and helpful, my travel and dining companion, a fount of calm and consternation, and my best friend. Our relationship stimulates and stumps me more than anything else in life, though it is a plentiful source of love, peace and pleasure, and he makes me happier all the time. That's the good news.
I've met so many wonderful people from many different countries, most of them amazing kids and their wonderful parents. I've had such good times teaching those children, laughing with them, and sometimes crying with them. They're the ones that bring the tears of joy to my eyes.
I've watched many movies in German, and plenty of episodes of "Tatort," the Sunday evening Krimi that is so popular here.
I've grown fond of certain German and Austrian shoe designers/manufacturers. I know where to shop and how to get the best deal by going to three different grocery stores, not sacrificing quality for budget. I have favorite restaurants, and know where to get a good Döner. Photo courtesy of P Salva
I've become more of a healthy eater, choosing bio foods over non-organic. I built my first-ever veggie burger a couple Saturdays ago, and am now choosing more vegetables over meats for Grillpartys. I can sit through German barbecues and the lengthy conversations that come with them almost to the end now, and that is an accomplishment in itself.
Healthwise, over the course of five years, I've had many more colds, sinus and bronchial infections than I ever got in the dry half of the USA where I resided since birth. I've developed other strange skin conditions that were unheard of back home. I've seen more doctors here than I did in the whole of my adult life in the States. Naja, I'm still alive and feeling great.
There is so much that I've gained here, but there are still bits missing that help me make sense of my existence. The most puzzling is that in five years I haven't learned as much as I wish about the German / European way of thinking. Obviously there are cultural differences, but some can be so subtle. Being cordial, bringing a bottle of Wein to parties or a small gift to the hostess was something I did back home. However, minuscule departures from what to me is "normal" thinking -- American thinking -- can greatly affect social and professional outcomes, and new challenges arise every day.
To counter this, the most common advice I've received from Germans in five years is that I need to defend myself better, stand up for what I want, and put people in their place. Such action is not in my conflict-avoiding nature. I continue to have the expectation that I will be understood, recognized for my merits, and treated fairly, especially at work. Falsch. This isn't the case, because there are cross-cultural misunderstandings, and not just between me and the Germans. Further, because my sensitivity can get the best of me, I have also been told that I need to have a thicker skin, ein dickeres Fell. When friend Mariette opined the same, she also said, "When you develop one, tell me the trick."
Because he's German, Heinie is the most assertive when "assisting" me in life choices. He tells me, "Du musst härter sein," but I don't want to change and be harder. I don't want anymore callouses than those I've already grown on my heart and feet. I want to be sweeter and kinder and gentler, and I want life to be easier. At times it's difficult to be lighthearted here, because this is one of the most determined countries on earth, with people that tend to be very serious. If living in Germany makes me hard, I often think I should get out of here, because I want to enjoy life and have fun, happiness being my lifelong pursuit. Obviously Germans are capable of enjoying: they know how to drink and celebrate (more than any culture I've ever known), there are festivals everywhere, and they love to cook and eat together. But there are nuances of the culture that I cannot yet completely grasp.
Whatever happens, I love Germany. I can and hopefully will stick it out for at least another five years, job-willing. I'll just have to make sure no more hard spots on my heart (or feet) develop in the meantime. Vielen Dank, Deutschland.
Wörterbuch / Dictionary
bio - organic, as in food and clothing
ein dickeres Fell - a thicker skin; literally, "a thicker fur"
falsch - incorrect, wrong
härter - harder
(der) Krimi -
(die) Steifftiere - collectible stuffed animals made by Steiff, a German company founded in 1880
(die) Wechseljahre - menopause (argh)
vielen Dank - many thanks