Almost a New Chapter

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In just a few hours, I will begin the last year of my 20s. I’ll begin the last year of my 20s in my German apartment, sharing a drink with someone I love very much. It looks like the coming year will also include a move to Paris, trips to San Juan, Mexico City, Berlin, and Ireland. There may be some music festivals in there, maybe a publication or two, maybe an application to a PhD program, but my future year is just like everyone else’s though…unwritten until it actually happens.

In this fast spinning world, I am taking this moment to look at what I wanted to do in my 20s, what I’ve done, where I’ve been. I could make a long list of my accomplishments, my regrets, of loves found and lost. But these past ten years haven’t really been about lists, they been about journeys. Like a lot of people, I thought I knew who I was at the beginning of my 20s, I thought I knew what I wanted, or rather knew exactly who I would never be; like a lot of people in their late 20s, I’ve come to realize that I have no idea who I am going to be ten years from now. Along the way I’ve learned a good bit about what matters, about what I am willing to stand up for, about how hard it is to be a person of absolute integrity. I feel lucky to be given the grace to accept the relative state of the universe, most days.

I think I’ve finally understood that unconditional acceptance and caring might just be the way to people’s heart, although I am pretty sure there are a few other ways left for me to discover. I’ve tried to sacrifice control over to the waves of mystery. Most of all my 20s have been a big adventure, with all the incredible highs, and heartbreaking lows of the Harry Potter series, sprinkled with the artful insanity of Sylvia Plath’s diary, and an overflowing spoonful of Prevert’s poetic sensuality.

So here’s to the books we are all still writing with every day, every year, and every decade we have left. Prost!

Constant Motion

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I keep tripping over half-packed boxes,
that lay scattered on the floor,
between bits of trash and tape.

Life is always in constant motion, even when we are standing still,
but something about this rock solid city, makes the motion harder to see.

It’s harder to see a reason to move on.
It’s harder to see the plan ahead.
It’s harder to see a more comfortable life than this.

But, I am not looking for a life of comfort.
I am looking for stamps on my passport, and residence cards from other worlds.
I am looking for a life where the constant motion of the universe gets packed into every box.

The Art of A Life

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The life of a visitor and the life of resident are so different, that sometimes only the guests in our open our eyes to the work of art in which we all live.

I am not the type of person who is likely to be described as stuck in her ways. I smell flowers, wear rose-colored glasses, literally, and try to be constantly in awe of beauty. None of this, however, prevents me from becoming acclimated to the things I see every day, or from complaining about the flaws I have found in any of the places I have lived. It took a recent visit from a friend to help open my eyes again to all the wonder of Nuremberg.

Sometimes it takes spending all day sitting in a park with friends to make me appreciate the beauty of having everything closed on Sundays. Sometimes it takes a visitor commenting on the beautiful cobblestone streets for me to linger fondly on memories of a passeggiata around the square, slowly devouring ice cream cones, while my hair is caresses by the warm breeze. Sometimes it takes the awe of a visitor to remove me from the supermarket runs, the bills, the spreadsheets, and the homework. Sometimes, I need remind of the simple fact that after 27 years I left my homeland and made a life across an ocean.

I believe we all need these awakenings, even if there isn’t biergarten on our corner or a 1000-year-old church in our backyard. We all need to see our own lives from a distance in order to find the beauty within all the mess. Despite what it may feel like, life is not a string of workdays, or a succession of bank statements. Life is what we see when we take a step back from examining the everyday minutia. In the end, life is a painting, not a brush stroke.

People, Places, Home

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The day after I attempted to explain that I have no hometown, per se, to a German girl who was born and raised in a town of 250 people, I went home.

I flew from the grey and cloud covered cold of Germany to the sunshine state where I lived a very different life several years ago. Going home isn’t always about a place. Sometimes it is about reminding yourself of who you once were, the life you once lived, and sometimes it is about seeing your whole-self reflected in a friend.

Miami as a place was never really home for me. I wasn’t an admirer of the vines and moss of Miami’s tropical gardens, their confusion always seems foreign to me. The waves of the Atlantic pale in comparison to the giant swells the Pacific offered me in my childhood. Nonetheless Miami was my home, for a time. It was my home because the city held, and still holds some of the people who know me best, people who hold my heart close to their own.

We all show different parts of ourselves to different people at different times. Certainly I tone down my sailor-level swearing at work, but this puzzle of identity goes deeper than that. Various parts of my personality, dare I say all our personalities, shine differently in different people’s lights. One friend may know us as a party person, another as a good student. A childhood friend knows our past, but may not be able to see who we are in the present and a new friend may never fully understand where we come from. Each of us is a whole world, with shifting tectonic plates, creating mountains in some areas of our lives and islands in others.

This shifting of identity is perhaps stronger in foreign lands, as we try to blend in and assimilate, while still retaining our own identity. In a more stoic culture like Germany, I hide certain parts of myself more often. The glitter-wearing, extreme extrovert self that was integral to who I was in a busy, sexy, city like Miami, is maybe not quite as accepted in the calm of Nuremberg. As I try desperately, like so many other immigrants, to be myself, but not stick out too much, some parts of who I was, who I am, are buried.

So, I went home. I went back to Miami, and unearthed other parts of myself. Robert Frost once wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.” I have found this to be quite true, no matter how much I roam. If someone lets you in, when you are sad, desperate, lonely, or just plain tired, then you are home. When you show a part of yourself that doesn’t quite fit, a part of you that has shifted with time, or a part of you that still aches from the past, and someone lets you in anyway, then you are home.

So, a place isn’t what makes a home; people make a place a home. It isn’t the city of Miami that lets me come home. It is the people who live there, who accept any and all of me, and my glitter, and the new gold pants I bought while I was there. Similarly, it isn’t the city of Nuremberg that I came home to again, it’s the people who like my non-German way of greeting, the people who don’t care if I wear glitter and gold pants every day. No matter where we go, all it takes for somewhere to be our home, is some kind soul opening the door and letting us in.

You Belong at Home

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When I walked into the party, I immediately noticed her. A leopard print tattoo on her arm matched her skirt, and her piercings were far more numerous than mine. She had all the signs of a German hipster, which is a bit like an American hipster, but with a few extra spoonfuls of metal thrown in. I was fascinated by her look, and I wanted to know more, so I said “hi”.

This 20-something women, whose every pore screamed “I AM DIFFERENT”, bore the classic name of Sarah and came to Nuremberg from a town of only 250 people. This town didn’t have a bar, or a disco. It didn’t even have a store. The people of her hometown had to drive to the next town to get bread, although she admitted that most of them just made it themselves.

That this now-city-dwelling, tattooed, California-loving, young women would have escaped from a tiny town is not really that surprising. The real surprise was when she freely and without any irony, admitted that when she got married she would return to her town to have and raise her children. There were so many unexpected things about this statement of hers; I didn’t know where to begin with my many questions.

I was of course surprised that someone so young and ostensibly “different” already planned to be married with kids in the next five to seven years. That part of the plan seemed a bit more average than I had expected from her. Yet, it was the fact that, even with all her tattoos, her dyed hair and piercings, Sarah still wanted to return to a town that didn’t even contain a grocery store that truly shocked me.

Yet this is the contradiction that is Germany at its heart. It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, you always belong at home eventually. A hometown isn’t just a place you once lived for most Germans. It is the place that defines you, that holds your past and your future.

Even the most alternative person on the street is expected to return to a tiny town and raise children in a house down the street from where they grew up. The American sense of home can be transported from Miami to Chicago, but for Germans, home is forever fixed in one place. Home isn’t just where the heart is in Germany; home is where you belong, yesterday, today, and always.

Risk, Rules, and Balance

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“Well come home and break a few rules with me!”

Those were the words of comfort from one of my best friends when I was lamenting the rule-oriented and risk-adverse German culture.

The truth is that I have spent most of my life as a rule breaker and risk taker. A big part of my identity is based on taking risks, like moving to foreign countries.

But what happens if the risk we take put us face-to-face with the things with which we are most uncomfortable?

I struggle to find a balance between being myself, a risk-taking American, and fitting into this new society within which I have chosen to make my life. Despite being culturally aware, I feel uncomfortable losing myself in order to completely integrate into a new society.

The stereotype of Germany is a country of bureaucrats. I think that the reality is a lot more subtle than that.  From what I have seen, Germany is a country that values the safety and security of its people. It is hard to argue that safety isn’t a good idea.

Safety is what allows me to walk home at night without fear; it is what allows me to have health care for an affordable price. Yet, it is this idea that security is paramount that creates a wall blocking innovation and new creative ways to do the same old thing.

Sometimes, a new idea comes crashing through the noise and maybe it’s a mistake but maybe it’s genius. I am the type of person who takes that new idea and runs with it. In fact, I have written much of myself in the mistakes I have made, and yet, I feel that if I want to fit in with German culture, I must risk less, break fewer rules and worse of all for this self-proclaimed rebel, conform.

Perhaps, none of us are meant to fit fully into any culture, even our own. Perhaps the very act of living a life is a small rebellion from which we create our own identity. Perhaps the lessons I should learn here in Germany are not about an all-consuming conformity, but about finding a balance between my own identity and the rules of the world.

In fact, maybe that’s what it is all about, finding balance in a world of extremes. As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, “The madness of this planet is largely a result of the human being’s difficulty in coming to virtuous balance with himself.”  In this mad world, maybe balance is the lesson we all need to learn.

 

The Bells are Ringing

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For my mama

This Christmas my mother came to Germany and the bells everywhere celebrated her arrival.  Upon hearing the church bells toll as she walked into my neighborhood for the first time, she began to do the parade wave and say, “Oh thank you, thank you”. “They are honoring my presence you know”, she continued, and in a way they were.

The trip she had saved all year for was a momentous one for us both. Despite leaving home almost ten years ago, my mother, for various reasons, has never stayed with me at my home. She also held a lot of fear and anger toward Germany as a residual from being the daughter of a WWII vet.

Yet, there she was, walking the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood with the bells ringing in her arrival. The bells didn’t stop there either, bells rang as my mother awed over the pastoral nature of the Bavarian country side. The bells rang in the mountains on the Austrian border; they rang as we explored magical castles, glowing Christmas markets, and ancient churches.

With each bell ring, it seemed my mother’s preconceptions of what Germany held were dispelled. She began to see the beauty I see when I walk the streets by my house, or when I study in 300-year-old school buildings.

For my part, I saw in my mother’s excitement, the root of much of my own curiosity. I found that the woman for whom all the bells toll, was not the woman of my childhood, but an ever-changing, energetically evolving woman, whose spirit I could still learn from, even in adulthood. Even now, when my mother is safely back in her own home, in another country, every time the bells ring, I think of her, and everything she has yet to teach me.

Not many people get to bust through so many preconceptions with one holiday visit. Yet each time we look at the world trough someone else’s eyes, we all learn a bit more about what we thought we already knew. Nothing is static, there is always a new perspective to be found and the bells are always ringing for someone.

A Sage, A Nymph, and Me

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Not long ago, I walked onto the subway and saw a sagely beautiful man sitting in an otherwise deserted car. Flashes of silver streaked in his onyx ponytail and the stubble on his face was speckled with grey.  I sat across from him, taking in his dark eyes, his deep wrinkles, his coffee-colored  skin. I was in awe of his meditative position, his prayerful hands, his soulful demeanor. I wanted to absorb everything about him.

At the next stop, a gaggle of girls interrupted my admiration. As I meditated on the profundity of the man sitting before me, their morning drinking and excessive giggles were pure distraction and sure signs of their youth.

And then it happened, a moment so magical and so mundane it is still astonishing. One of the tall blonde nymphs popped open another bottle of something sweet and alcoholic, and the cap flew across the seat back and landed next to the beautiful man’s foot. We both glanced at it, but none of the girls seemed to notice.

Slowly, gracefully, the man I had been admiring bent down on one knee, almost as if to propose, and gently lifted the cap toward the young girl. She barely glanced down at the beauty humbling himself before her.  The silly girl  interrupted her giggles long enough to utter “dankeschön” as if it were part of a song and then returned to her friends. The gentleman likewise, returned to his seat, his silence, and his own world.

Only I seem to have noticed the bizarre proposal between understanding and innocence. I alone was altered by their exchange. I found myself somewhere between youth and grace, able to witness both, but participate in neither. I am naïve enough to be moved by such tiny moments, but not wise enough to simply let them go.  I am neither a sage nor a nymph, but merely a chronicler of moments not significant enough for anyone else to remember.

Learning Again

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As I approach 30, and simultaneously head back to school and start a new job, all while living in a foreign country, I find myself learning lessons well before I ever enter a classroom. These lessons are not about literary theory or language history, but larger lessons of life, that teach me something about the world around me, and something about the world within me.

Despite being able to live here legally, once I was accepted to a graduate program, I needed to change my immigration status. I was told over the phone that I simply had to fill out one sheet of paperwork, and the switch would be made. Once the paperwork was filed however, I was informed the actual process would be much longer. So, the waiting began for me again.

At school, despite my attempts to be extra prepared, waiting also was required. Last minute changes to class offerings caused hours of schedule reworking. It seemed that clear answerer were impossible to find.

After being offered a job in July, a combination of governmental and workplace bureaucracy began to constantly push back my start date. There I was, after a year of under-employment, waiting again to start a job I had already been offered.

It seemed that no matter what I did, I was destined to wait, to experience frustration, and to learn patience. Some of this waiting was simply learning to navigate a new system of institutions that form the basis of the culture here in Germany. Some of the waiting was universal, and some of it came out of my own stubbornness to get things finished on my own terms.

Tomorrow I begin my first days of official graduate school classes. The next day I begin my first day of work. I have a proper student residence permit in my wallet as I type these words.

There are lessons we all have to learn, and often the hardest ones emanate from the core of our lives. Sometimes these lessons come to us begrudgingly through plain truths, and sometimes we struggle against the lessons we need to learn. The lessons we each most need to learn, however, tend to be the lessons the universe continually teaches us. So I say I have learned my lesson of patience…for now.

The Other Side of Distance

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Distance isn’t always a negative. Sometimes it takes physical distance to give us perspective on our own pain. I left bad memories, the pain of loss, the chaos of death 6000 miles away, and even though their ghosts still follow me, I am somehow beyond their reach. When I finally returned to Germany, after three weeks of funerals, family drama, and heartache, I was astounded by the feeling of freedom I found in a park, along a little river.

I spent hours exchanging scars, blessings, and travel stories with a kindred spirit in that a park. As I walked home, the flowers seemed to bloom just for me. The breeze seemed to lift away the ghosts of my past. The river seemed to move me along, away from what I was.

In the stifling heat of downtown Washington D.C., and the isolation of the Northern California suburbs, I was trapped. I was surrounded by grief, stress, and pain, both others’ and my own. I was constantly reliving the worst moments of my childhood, and I trudged through some of the deepest grief of my adult life. It was a muddy mess I couldn’t seem to escape. Yet, as soon as I stepped into the crisp autumn of Nuremberg, something inside of me broke free, some sunlight pierced through the overhanging clouds.

At its heart, this is what travel offers us all, a chance to put a physical distance between our own narrow world and a broader one. What we leave behind will always be there, but what we see when we’re away gives us the freedom to see everything else more clearly. Sometimes distance brings us pain, and sometimes distance saves us.