Some Goodbyes…

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There is always a certain heartache in saying goodbye, but sometimes goodbyes are beautiful. Sometimes reality wraps up better than a sitcom and sometimes endings rip us open.

Recently, a friend of mine ended his summer stay in Germany. We ended our time together toasting beers at the very same place where we had shared our first beer together the day he arrived in Germany. There was a beautiful symmetry to that goodbye. Even though his absence from my life felt deeply, his time living in this city I call home fit neatly into a beer stein shaped box. Other goodbyes are not so simple. Other goodbyes are left scattered across our hearts for years.

As I left Germany for an undetermined amount of time in order to head to the states to care for loved ones, the goodbye I shared with my boyfriend at the airport was a ragged one. We were not alone in our heart wrenching goodbyes. Every family, every couple in the airport looked as if the goodbye would splay them open. There is no symmetry or beauty in an airport at 5am.

It is impossible to compare these temporary goodbyes, no matter how poetic or horrible, to the ultimate goodbye. The farewell my grandmother said to this life held no ease or beauty. Watching her claw her way to every breath is not achingly beautiful, it is simply an ache. It is an ache that only the smile of a child, the long hug of a friend and the passage of years can dull.

Yet saying goodbye to the life we have led is just the last of many goodbyes we have to say in our lifetimes. Some of those goodbyes will be easy, some may give us glimpses of eternal beauty, some will be heart-wringing messes that leave us forever changes, but they are all markers of life and love. I, for one, wouldn’t want a life without them.

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Language of the Clan

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Andre and Autumn

for André

“More agua s’il vous plaît darling”
“Of course Shatzi”
“Danke bem”
“Bitte carñia”

Languages babble and bubble together, creating a murmuring brook of shatzi, darling, bem, cariño, sweetie. These words pass friend to friend, along with grins and hugs, and all manner of affection. Latin elasticity blends with German structure, American over-affection blends with French over-indulgence and something like family is born.

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Building a community of people whose homelands span several continents requires taking the best of everything and mixing it together. The odd assortment that emerges allows each of us to step out of our cultural boxes, beyond the safety of the relationships we already knew, and form something new. We become friends, and more, we become the phone call home and the cup of soup for each other. We care for each other’s broken hearts, and broken bones. We mend hard days with soft hands and kind words.

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The odd mix of generous affections and ironic curses in more than five languages is daunting. The polyglot family that has swept up my heart here in Germany is almost indecipherable to outsiders. They lose their footing in the swiftly flowing river of our strange and deep ties. Our clan requires a very specific mixture of languages, terms and inside jokes to survive, but the broader picture is more universal. There are hugs and laughter, tough silences and beautiful ones, dinners, letters, parties and photos. The essence of friendship, of family, remains the same in any language. In the end, all any of us really say is love.

Photos by Valentin Schilling

Magical Mythical Immigration

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There is no straight path, just twist and turns and infuriating dead ends.  Wrong directions are always given and all the guideposts are in a foreign language. This, friends, is the immigration process.

Nothing in my experience is more capable of creating the feeling of isolation and otherness than immigration issues. Without the backing of a big corporation, or a highly prized graduate degree in science or engineering, the process is utterly daunting. Beyond being simply impossible to figure out, it seems as if the giant maze of immigration paperwork has no exit. Once you need immigrant paperwork, you will constantly need to fill out change of purpose forms, change of address forms, renewals applications, work applications, petitions, formal requests, and appeals, all while juggling translations from and to a strange and unfamiliar tongue.

Sometimes the immigration processes is like a mythical maze, sometimes a fairy tale’s dark forest, yet it is always something beyond reason—one part pure fantasy, two parts pure nightmare. Despite the dangers, no matter how many twisted paths we must follow, we who brave the immigration process emerge, like characters from fairy tales, changed and stronger on the other side of a great wilderness.

Mind the Gap

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Sometimes, often in fact, I forget that I’m American. I am surrounded by elegant, thoughtful, and fluently-English-speaking Europeans so often that I just assume I am one of them. The truth is that I am not.

Sure sometimes strange words, and customs alienate me, but mostly I can understand those. My strange American hugs throw some people off at first, but generally they learn to accept them laughingly in the end. Living in a multi-national, multi-cultural group of friends makes us all fairly good at understanding and accepting various different customs. There are some gaps, however, that alienate more than customs, some cultural differences we must learn to see, even if we can’t understand them.

These almost invisible gaps don’t show up very often, but when they do, I walk into them in our the way birds fly into glass windows in Windex commercials, which is to say face first and with intense impact. One of these almost invisible divides is with education. I didn’t grow up in a country with free, or practically free education. While I worked in college it was to stave off debt, Europeans worked during their educational years to gain meaningful experiences and spending money. People stay in school much longer here since it is so cheap, and so many people my age are just finishing their studies, while I am celebrating my 5-year college reunion.

Another gap my friends and I seem to be constantly falling into is travel. My European friends seem baffled by my infrequent travels, and I likewise have no idea how they seem to manage trips all over Europe every other weekend. While logically I know that it take me 20+ hours of travel to see my parents, instead of the 3 or four hours it takes them, I am constantly confused by their constant vacations. We can’t quite seem to adequately explain to each other the differences in our traveling lives.

The list goes on, beliefs I never knew I held about separation of church and state, and the right to bear arms pop up like bizarre jack-in-the-boxes. Attempts to explain my life in crime heavy neighborhoods simply don’t make sense here. While I could compare the superficial differences between Europeans and Americans for hours without much thought or impact, these deep underlying cultural fissures cause Barrier-reef-sized estrangements. These gaps, that are nearly invisible on the surface, are the ones that simultaneously make me feel the most American and the most alien.

Street Symphonies

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In the home of Mozart
quartets of mothers
spin symphonies of gossip
while their little ones play
pizzicato piccolos
with their shrieks.

The footsteps of the rumpled ragged crones
carry the beat
amplified by the weight
of their innumerable
baskets of sustenance.

Elfish faced girls flit about to the music
in an unnoticed ballet.
Every movement a banner of
their lithe and untroubled youth.

Home and Back Again

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Anyone who has ever moved, gone away to college, or even traveled, knows that the sense of home is mutable. I used to believe that home was just a truth we all write for ourselves, sometimes based on fact, other times on fiction. That was until I spent three weeks driving around the United States to many of my former homes.

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For three whole weeks, I saw rolling hills of forest, waves of grain, corn, and soy. Every day was full of familiar streets, faces and expressions. Yet somehow, it was not home. Despite often feeling completely alien as an immigrant in Germany, somewhere along the lines I had begun to think of Germany as home. This realization didn’t dawn on me, however, until I was driving through America’s achingly beautiful farmlands.

Surrounded by the vastness of the United States, I longed for the short walk to the grocery store in Germany. At a restaurant in some mid-Atlantic state, I found myself swimming in a sea of iPads, and wished for the bare walled simplicity of a good Bavarian beer hall. I longed for my apartment, my cat and my new friends, despite being surrounded by the things and people I had missed most in my months abroad.

It seems that home is not simply a story we each write, but, perhaps, that is the essence of its complex nature. Home certainly is the stories, faces and places we remember from our past, but it is also the place we live now. Home is both the place we go back to for holidays, and the place we leave when we go there. Perhaps the old saying “Home is where the heart is”, has more truth to it than it appears, for who doesn’t have bits of their heart strewn in various places? We all love people who have left us, people who live far away, and even people who no longer live at all. Bits of our hearts are left like breadcrumbs along our life’s journey. We’ve all dropped pieces of our hearts, ourselves, on every hearth where we’ve warmed our cold hands, in each hand we’ve held for comfort, over each vista that trapped a sigh in our chest. So then home is all of those places and faces as well. It was good to go home, and it is good to be back home again.

Rain in my Beer

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The night ended with wet hair being flung about. Layers of soaking dirndls swished, liter beer mugs clanked and the rain poured down. This was not how I imagined my first beer festival in Germany, but it is the reality I experienced, and I wouldn’t change a minute.

The cold, wet night that I first entered the world famous “Berg” beer festival was a night destined for movies and hot cocoa not wild outdoor drinking, but my friends and I were committed to celebrate our friend’s birthday in style. As we left the train station, we were all lamenting the rain, which obstinately poured harder in response to our protests. We made our way into the beer festival as many were exiting, but there was still a definite lack of covered seating.

As we huddled under the one umbrella and tried to negotiate seats, we all looked a little miserable. Then there was a moment—one of those beautiful moments where life suddenly seems so clear. I stepped out into the rain and shook drops from my hair to the beat of the live band. After that, everything changed.

We became part of something, part of everything. We sang in spite of the rain, we danced because of the cold. We were obstinate in our merry-making and it was glorious.

The movement we embrace that things are different and unexpected is the moment we achieve greatness. Rain becomes a new hairstylist and benches become dance floors. Songs you don’t understand can still be sung. Life happens in the mess and the mud, in the rain and the cold, and sometimes it’s so much better that way.

Fifika’s Birth

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This is an excerpt from a piece of fiction I am currently writing while living here in Germany. I hope you enjoy it. 

The day Fifika was born could have been during a very auspicious alignment of the stars. If she had waited in her mother’s womb a few more weeks, she would have been born on the first warm day of spring. Instead, she was born during one of the last and harshest snowstorms of the year and the stars were ever so misaligned as she drew her first breaths.

As the beautiful Serafima screamed in the pains of labor, the graceful Vadoma attended to her and sang songs of warmth and power. As Serafima gave a final push, the last of the Vezdakasht clan took her first breath. Her mother’s breath froze in the air as she gave her daughter her first and most secret name that would remain unspoken to confuse the evil spirits.  As Vadoma wrapped her granddaughter in blankets, she told her the story of Vezdakashti, a story she would retell many times over the course of their lives together.  A week later a chill still hung in the air when her father baptized her with holy water and named her Fifika.

Fifika was a bright and happy child whose giggle echoed around the caravan night and day. From an early age she was fascinated by the stars and would spend hours on her back studying and contemplating the stars. She imagined new constellations and listened to Vadoma’s tales of the stars and the moon and their names and histories. When she was alone, she would tell herself her own stories. She would retell herself the stories of her ancestors.

Fifika always knew the story of her clan. Run by powerful women the Vezdakasht clan was notorious. Their fame was due to both their terrifying power and the unfathomable beauty. Green eyes and dark hair were their trademarks. Vadoma said all the best stories were grown from dark places in the forest the Vezdakasht’s called their own.

These dark places were part of Fifika’s childhood playgrounds. As she grew, she learned the ways of the woods and the spells of the skies. Both her mother and grandmother taught her their skills with the fiercest pride, although Fifika always found Vadoma to be the more patient teacher. Her mother, Serafima, had prodigious power over men, but her passion for all things often boiled away her ability to concentrate.

Vadoma on the hand was slow and kind. She, like Fifika, could concentrate for hours on the stars, trying to understand their mysterious power.  Vadoma sensed from an early age that Fifika had a strong dose of the Vezdakasht spirit, and predicted great things for her future. Like most grandmothers are wont to do however, she ignore the warnings the stars gave.

Flaws and All

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There are some days when I miss my home country fiercely. Day when I get called an ugly American at a bar just for talking a bit too loud, days when the best German I can muster is a whispered genau, days when I just want to share a good glass of California wine with my mother—these are the days when living in this foreign land breaks my heart.

Then there are days when I can’t imagine ever leaving this place I now call home. I can barely bare the perfection of the days when I sip coffee and eat cake at the sunlit table of a café built within ancient castle ruins. I cannot imagine leaving a place where I get to watch college kids pop champagne in a park at midday, while a father plays tag with his three towheaded children.

There are less poetic moments too, that tie my heart bit by bit to this new land. Medical bills that cost less than a pair of neon jeggings, and a crime rate so low it makes Sesame Street look like Detroit are just a few. Nevertheless, around the next corner, are the endless bureaucracy and harsh normalizing forces that make me long for the wild streets of America’s cities.

The truth is this—Utopia does not exist. Every place, every town, every city, every stretch of wide farmland or wild forest has its own flawed personality, just like every person who sets eyes upon it. We must let the places we live simultaneously expand and shatter our hearts if we are to experience them at all.

Magic of the Universe

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I’ve watched more families interact than I care to remember. After six years in youth work, I felt like I had seen it all. Usually, it was all bad. From the outside, it is easy to see the flaws that let the fragility of love show through. Yet sometimes I am still amazed by the love families can exhibit.

It feels like a miracle to watch the moments of pure unconditional love, even if they are fleeting. Like putting a blanket on a sleeping child, these are moments of pure comfort.

I walked into a kitchen full of laughter and the smell of yeast. As an entire generation worked dough from a grandfather’s recipe, bond of familiar love were cemented forever.

My little brother and I shiver in unison as we dip our feet in the chilly pool. We splash and giggle, as our feet turn blue in the fading sunset.

A teenager, tall and blond, engages his 90-year-old grandmother in an intent conversation. Despite her hearing loss, he shows patience beyond his years and she shows excitement beyond hers.

Sometimes, when we are most sure that the world has nothing to offer but spite and hate, love jumps out at us and shocks us into believing in the magic of the universe again.

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