Category Archives: Home

So Long, Goodbye, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

To this day there is something illusionistic and illusory about the relationship of time and space as we experience it in traveling, which is why whenever we come home from elsewhere we never feel quite sure if we have really been abroad.

W.G. Sebold, Austerlitz

And with that, I find myself come full circle.  What began with a seven-hour layover at Newark Airport ends in a seven-hour layover at Newark Airport.  It’s an odd feeling being back here, as though this year never really happened.  It doesn’t feel as though I just lost a city; it doesn’t feel like I will never watch the boats go by on that bit of the Rhine again; it doesn’t even feel like I can confidently speak again – a few people ventured a safe small talk conversation starter, and I just sucked.  Blatantly.

I was thinking about this on the plane ride over – how, if this year already just feels sort of dreamlike, what did I really take away from it?  Resume filler, sure; a working knowledge of German (which, two hours into America, I already feel slipping), of course.  But what I think it really comes down to is this: I learned how to be independent.  I navigated German bureaucracy, a school system, foreign cities.  I talked to police, to a newspaper reporter, to students, and I found myself for the first time on the other side of the great student/teacher divide, which was exhilarating, frightening, frustrating, and rewarding all at once.

But more than that, I learned how to be completely and utterly dependent: I relied on the teachers at my school for so, so much – that they would take me into their classrooms and often, their homes.  They found my own apartment for me, showed me around the area, lent me furniture, gave me late-night rides back home, and opened up a side of the culture I never would have known about otherwise.  I relied on homefolk to keep me sane.

I think I also learned a bit about appreciation, and I don’t mean of fine wines (although I did plenty of that this year, just more in a “Mmm, I like white wine” moreso than in a “this has a hint of oak and finishes with a bouquet of raspberry blossoms and midnight rain” sort of way).  You know that phrase, “Expect the best, prepare for the worst”?  Well, my own personal take on that is “Expect the worst, panic about every foreseeable scenario in which things go wrong to Joe.”  If a plane can be cancelled, it will be.  If my paycheck is late, it’s not coming at all.  And so (by my mentality), in a year where so much could have gone wrong, I learned how to be so thankful of what didn’t go wrong: Joe still likes me.  I never had a health issue and had to figure out insurance/German medical system.  Friends and family came to visit.  Fulbright didn’t kick me out for not living up to their standards and send me home in disgrace.  I happened to be placed in the same tiny town with Beth, who became one of my best friends.  So far, my flights haven’t been cancelled.

Also, I learned how to spend obscene amounts of free time alone, which  means, by extension, I am now really, really good at Minesweeper.

And if I can do 67 seconds without a mouse, I shudder to think what I'll do with one.

But back to the thankfulness thing.  I wanted to, in conclusion of my year and of my blog, thank you all for showing some interest in my year.  I hope you enjoyed the blog; I definitely enjoyed knowing you were reading  – but not as much as I’ll enjoy getting to see you and speak good ol’ American English with you, which I’m sure we’ll do soon.

As a side note  (or more accurately, as an end note), I wore my Razorback shirt today, feeling it was appropriate, and I’m not sure what I was expecting: that I’d land and some stranger at the airport would be like “Hey, Woo Pig, am I right?” and then we’d like, chest bump or whatever it is that sports fans do, but instead, here’s what my homecoming was: one lady eyed me and I could tell she wanted to comment on my shirt, but instead of an “Oh, did you go to the U of A?” it was a “Were you by chance in Tuscany?  We saw shirts like that for sale there.”  And then the guy at passport control glanced at my passport, and said “Lori from Ar-Kansas, welcome back.”

It was just the way my German students pronounce it, which made me smile – I felt like it was a farewell to Germany and a hello to the USA all at once.

With the other Fulbrighters from Rheinland-Pfalz on a Ferris Wheel at Johannisfest in Mainz last weekend

One final "Zum Wohl" on the Rhine with Bethlein

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Aprilwetter

In Arkansas (and probably every other state in the Union, but we all like to think we’re exceptional), we’ll tell any non-native who can discern words in our thick-as-molasses accents that if they don’t like the weather, they can just wait five minutes and it’ll change.  From what I’ve been hearing, this hasn’t exactly been the case this year – if you wait another five minutes, you’ll just get more rain.  So, then, if global weather patterns are any indication, it seems old wive’s tales have followed me to Germany, because while you all back home have been getting nothing but rain, I’ve been enjoying nothing but sunshine. And rain. And wind. And thunderstorms.  All in the course of an afternoon, and usually, but not necessarily, concurrently.  And if I wait five minutes, it’ll probably change.

I was talking to a teacher here about how this beautiful/gloomy/beautiful/violent weather we’ve been getting is really crimpin’ my style (I took it as a sign of the end times, but guess that turned out to be a fluke), and he said they have a word for when the sun shines while it’s raining: Aprilwetter.  Turns out, then, it has nothing to do with me taking the weather with me, nor even with the apocalypse; this unpredictability is exactly what to predict come this time of year.

And so this brings me to today’s cheap metaphor, because what is my English major good for, if not for cooking up obvious and half-baked analogies?

And so, let’s see how this pans out: this “April weather” (granted, a month late) is the perfect sort of weather for mirroring that bittersweet feeling you get at the end of anything – a school year, a summer, a chocolate bar, or as the case may be, a year abroad. I’m so ready to move on and get back home, but there’s also a certain sadness to leaving this behind.  This was supposed to be my year of finding myself, of being young and free and a stranger in a strange land, of drinking strange alcohols and eating rich breads, of picking up a second language and travelling before I get set in my ways and saddled with responsibilities.  Okay, and teaching.  And, to an extent, that is what happened, but really, what this year did was a little less Under the Tuscan Sun; when it comes down to it, what this year did best was confirm things I already knew: I love my boyfriend (there! I said it!) and long distance relationships are sucky, sucky things; I want to go into library science, despite the job market being a sucky, sucky thing; I love barbeque and American ales more than wurst and Rieslings (there! I said it!).  I’ll miss it here, but I’m ready to get back. It’s raining while the sun is shining.

Obvious metaphor, over and out.

Baby Berlin

So, my hiatus has lasted long enough.  I should have things to say.  I’ve been to Berlin and to Copenhagen since last we met, both wonderful places that I now associate with wonderful memories – an incredibly generous conference/hotel/all-you-can-eat buffet every night provided by Fulbright, no shortage of good food and sightseeing and company, a handful of speeches given by important people including the mayor of Berlin herself, and for real, Copenhagen is the scientifically-proven most beautiful city in the world.

And one of the windiest.

And most expensive.  And home to the most incomprehensible language that closely resembles but is most definitely not German ever conceived by man.

But actual events overwhelm me, and I don’t ever know how to approach them when it comes time to blog about them, which is probably the single suckiest quality I could have as a blogger; that’s why I prefer to stick solely to non-events and non-happenings, like trips to the grocery store and comparing Europe to Harry Potter way too often.  I think this aversion to the big topics stems from the boatload of English papers I’ve completed, the goal of which was always to narrow, narrow, narrow that topic down.

My English degree has made me a uninteresting writer.  Wouldn’t it just.

Anyway, so rather than tackling the real Berlin (I saw museums; I heard speeches, I “networked”), I’m going to tackle something much more manageable: Baby Berlin.

You see, when I first got to Germany, I was a bit overwhelmed (or underwhelmed?  Just plain old regular flavor whelmed?) by how, well, not difficult to navigate it was.  Sure, there are trains you can ride; sure, you can ride a bike here without the crushing fear of being crushed by SUVs on the rampage; sure, there are bakeries on corners and pedestrians in city centers – but adjusting to life here did not demand that I reorient myself to my world.  I didn’t need to change change, I just had to tweak here and there, when it comes down to it.

And so at first, I noticed mostly the funny Americanisms that Germany displayed.  Ben and Jerry’s sold at the hot dog place; Lady Gaga on the radio.  When you’re away, similarities jump out at you, while a lot of the differences are much more subtle, and so noticing them came later, and are still coming, in slow, cumulative waves – a sense of a different approach to politics, a different aesthetic, different ways of greeting and different circumferences of personal space bubbles.  It’s a slightly altered normal, but it’s definitely a different normal.

That’s what struck me when I left my apartment yesterday.  Two girls were playing in the driveway in front of my house.  They had drawn “Berlin” on the pavement with sidewalk chalk, and were busy riding up and down what I can only assume to be Unter den Linden with their scooters.

It makes me smile every time I pass it (and by pass it, I mean stay on the right side of their chalked-on road, and adhere to the rules of their tiny roundabouts – I dare you to walk by this and not fight the urge to do the same) because I remember doing exactly the same thing with sidewalk chalk in the cul-de-sac outside my house growing up.  The idea is the same – a miniature of our respective worlds – but not the execution: I drew, naturally, what was normal to me, just as these girls drew what’s normal for them.  In other words, where they draw roundabouts, crosswalks, and bakeries, I drew drive-through Baskin Robbins.

Which somehow isn’t quite so charming.

Why Germany Sucks

Save a Conga line and a carton of broken eggs, you may have noticed that January and February saw a general lack of, how do I say, interesting posts.  Why?  Because I fell into a routine of biking to school on dark, grey mornings, biking back on slightly lighter, grey afternoons, frantically sending grad school applications to whoever’ll have me, waging war against German adjective endings while forcing inexplicable English grammatical constructions and pronunciation on students, and watching lots of Mad Men because it’s just so dang grey and cold outside.  This, compounded by what I affectionately call my Fundless February (Fulbright thought I could use the extra challenge of doing without my full pay) made for a, well, less-than-glamorous winter.  I’m not really complaining (despite every single word I just uttered); in fact, these past couple of months have really been something I needed, in a way.  I saw Germany not when it was on display for tourists; I saw it when it was dismal and cloudy and closed, which in a way is one of the perks of this year – it’s not a whirlwind trip, there is no sense of “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium,” so sometimes there’s just… routine.  I’m not complaining, I’m just saying routine doesn’t make for good travel blogs.

But let’s move on to March.  The sun is out, birds are chirping, crocuses are croaking, Chacos are on, ice cream shops are open, students are getting restless: dare I suggest that maybe spring might be approaching?  Or am I being too forward?  At any rate, before I’m overcome by sunshine- and sandal-induced cheerfulness and general goodwill, I want to take this moment to spring clean the crotchety winter blues out of my system, and so I bring you:

Why Germany Sucks,
Although I Mean That as Affectionately as Possible

  • Public Transportation
    I know Europe sounds like a Utopia of stepping on a train in Frankfurt and alighting in Moscow or Istanbul, but  Utopia propagandists don’t tell you about the layovers, the missed connections, the rerouted and cancelled trains, train strikes, the lack of seating in warm parts of stations, or worst of all, the rowdy drunks.  Maybe I’m 23 going on old, but I’m all for them designating a party car way far away from my seat.
  • Smoking
    It’s astounding, the difference in attitudes towards smoking.  Home, it’s assumed you don’t smoke until proven otherwise; here, the other way around.  Every street corner boasts a cigarette vending machine; in the 15-minute breaks between classes, students stand outside in hazy clumps, puffing away; my favorite, though, is the yellow squares traced on train platforms designated as smoking areas.

    One good thing, though, about Germany is that German cigarette smoke actually stays within those boundaries.

  • Sundays
    Everything is closed.  There’s something quaint about that, sure, but also something inconvenient.
  • Water fountains
    Or the lack thereof.
  • Toilets
    1) You have to pay for public usage, and
    2) A lot of them, including mine, look like this:

    Thank you, Google, for knowing precisely what I meant by "German shelf toilet"

  • Food
    Schnitzel with noodle may be one of my favorite things, but not every time I set foot in a restaurant.  We have a stereotype of German cuisine being a thing of schnitzel, potatoes, sausage, beer, and pretzels, and with good reason; maybe I’m being unfair, but I miss the variation of available foods at home.  Also, the guy who instituted their strict no-brownie policy doesn’t know what’s good for him.  Or he knows what’s good for him, and knows that brownies aren’t one of those things.
  • Gendered nouns
    Who needs ’em?
  • This.
    Someone asked that I (or more accurately, my mom) order this particular backpack for them, as it’s not available in Germany – and it, more than anything else I can think of, is indicative of the fashion choices of Kinder these days.  Well, this, plus an unwavering devotion to How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen or no.  Okay fine, this last point shouldn’t quite make the “Why Germany Sucks” list, but something about the aesthetics here – I can’t put my finger on it – does make me miss the aesthetics of home.

And now that this post (and winter) are out of the way, I’m going back to falling back in love with this place.  We have some catching up to do.

Making Christmas

I’ve fought the Christmas post.  I have.  There’s no way to spin a Christmas post in a way that hasn’t been spun before: I’ve mentally written and rewritten, but by the end of it, I’m always either a Scrooge or a Buddy the Elf, heartlessly cynical or mindlessly feel-good.  Really, I feel myself to be more the father-in-A-Christmas-Story type – I like a good Christmas, but also, I’m in it for the turkey.  A nice medium.

But since I obviously have so far failed to channel this voice of reason (and besides, that particular voice has already used up the good lines. “Fra-gee-lay. Must be Italian”), I’m just going to take the path of least resistance, slap a title on this blog that could just as well be the title to a dysfunctional family Christmas comedy, and we’ll take the feel-good route.  So grab a cup of cider, hunker down in your one-horse open sleigh, and off we go!

Christmas has always retained an element of the Santa Claus.  Even after my parents sat me down and broke the news to me (a sad sort of milestone in any child’s life, but mine was sort of cutened up by my response: I cried and, through my tears, asked if Kyle knew), Christmas has always just sort of happened.  I buy a few gifts, I bake a few cookies, sure, but other than that, the chaotic family gatherings, the Christmas tree, the lights on the house, the parade of stop-motion Christmas specials on TV are all going to happen, irregardless of how much effort I exert to make sure that it all amounts to the Best Christmas Pageant Ever.  Santa Claus might as well drop presents down the chimney, for all I knew.

But then Christmas season started to roll around this year, and I realized with a sort of sinking feeling that the halls don’t deck themselves.  And with the arrival of a boyfriend impending, I felt, for the first time ever, the weight of making sure that Christmas feels like Christmas, an especially tough task when you can’t buy a tree, you have no capacity to bake a single gingerbread man, you’re not surrounded by family, and radio stations aren’t blaring “Last Christmas” at you like it hasn’t been out since 1984.

At first I thought it would be okay.  BFF Monica and her BF were going to fly in for a few days, and we imagined ourselves having some sort of sophisticated ex-pat X-mas, and I wouldn’t have to worry much about food because gastronomically speaking, the two of them make up for everything Joe and I lack.  And more importantly, I’d have someone here to share the blame with if Christmas just sort of didn’t show up to our dinner party, the floozy.

But then Monica’s visa application fell through, courtesy of the British Bureaucracy that Stole Christmas, and we were both left to tackle the Holidays on our own.

My Christmas spread out on my dining room table.

And I’ve tried my darndest to tackle them: I made a Christmas tree out of construction paper and glitter and set presents to my teachers underneath; I made the fried pecans my Grandpa makes every year (considering the still-charred kitchen ceiling in my parents’ kitchen, no small feat); I’ve prepared lessons on Christmas in America; I’ve searched for recipes that will amount to a memorable Christmas feast for two while still adhering to my strict two-burner policy; I’ve googled and googled for videos of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer to, as of yet, no avail; and if the radio won’t blast “Last Christmas” for me, I’ll do it myself, gosh darn it.

But then I found that, despite my determined, if forced, “Christmas! Will! Happen!” efforts… Christmas happened anyway.  Like cuckoo clockwork, it snowed the day after Thanksgiving, and Germany transformed into a giant gingerbread village, and the local Fulbrighters and I have, accordingly, been on a Christmas Market rampage

Lebkuchen at the market in Frankfurst

(current tally: 10, with at least 3 more in the foreseeable future).  As if this town couldn’t get any cuter, I was handed a piece of chocolate at the post office when I sent off a post card.  Advent wreaths and calendars and concerts have been springing up, and lebkuchen has been making a regular appearance in the teachers’ lounge.  My parents sent over some presents  to make sure I’d have something to open on Christmas Day, a gesture that made me tear up, and one student, when asked what he’s wishing for this Christmas, said “A laptop and more of those pecans.”  Joe insists that this Christmas will be a memorable one even without family/traditions/gift exchange, because we’ll be together, and, you know, in Germany.  And come to find out, Germans love “Last Christmas.”

Frankfurt

And if I can’t be around family this Christmas, that’s the best I could ask for (neverminding the Monica’s visa bit): a beautiful and bauble-bedecked area, a family to miss this Christmas, a boyfriend coming to spend the holidays with me.

And now feel free to cue to the final scene of any Christmas movie ever made.

Over the Fluss and Through the Wald

How do you celebrate Thanksgiving in Germany?  Or even more pressing, what is Germany thinking in not having Thanksgiving?  Sure, sure, Germany doesn’t have the tale of pilgrims-meet-indians-and-flourish-in-a-short-lived-but-heartwarming-coexistence, but surely it sees value in eating yourself into a gravy-induced stupor, the only coherent words coming from you at this point being “Well maybe one more sliver a pie’ll do me.” Which brings me to this: What is Germany thinking in not having pie?

Luckily for me, Thanksgiving wasn’t too hard to procure.  The Fulbright Alumni Association in Frankfurt hosts an “American style” Thanksgiving every year, featuring a whole turkey for every table!  And they tried.  They did.  All the components were there: the sweet potatoes, just served in boiled wedges, not mashed with brown sugar and pecans.  The stuffing, they just had the nerve to not serve my grandma’s.  The green beans, just served mixed with herbs and cauliflower rather than with the subtle compliments of cream of mushroom

Fulbright Thanksgiving, which pales in comparison to my family's Thanksgiving, as indicated by the poor lighting, poor photo editing, and not-quite-appetizing coloring of this photograph.

soup and fried onions.  The mashed potatoes, except… okay, here’s where they really missed the mark.  All of these sides came out in small-ish bowls, and we helped ourselves family-style.  When they brought out the mashed potatoes, Beth leaned in to me and whispered, “Wait, we each get our own bowl, right?”  No such luck.  The bottom layer of my plate was decidedly not mostly mashed potato.

Really though, it was wonderful that the Fulbright Association hosted this meal: it is, in a microcosmic sort of way, indicative of what this year has meant to me.  Living abroad is, by default, the cultural exchange J.W. Fulbright wanted this program to be; every day involves some amount of reassessing what I’m used to in America, and seeking some way of making it work here, if not foregoing it completely, or conversely, improving upon it.  A car?  I’ll make do with a bike.  It’s my American life, Germanized, as this dinner was an American dinner, Germanized – and when it comes down to it, I’m of the mind that pre-dessert schnapps wouldn’t be a bad tradition to implement in my own future Thanksgiving feasts.

But, appreciative as we were, we American Teaching Assistants were not to be satiated by a German attempt at our favorite meal; lacking a proper feast, we would do it ourselves, and this time, it will be smothered in gravy and bound by cheesy sauces, and there will be a regulation amount of mashed potatoes.  So, we did just that, and I’m quite impressed by our resourcefulness.  We deviled

A Thanksgiving plate with all the fixins' properly piled

our eggs, we stuffed our mushrooms, we made made rather than open a can made cranberry sauce (a revelation), we had Stove Top stuffing compliments of Joe and the postal service (which still had the nerve to not be my grandma’s), we topped our green beans with fried onions.  And it was delicious.  There’s that sense of comraderie I’d been missing, as we ate until we all slumped in our seats, and as we took a walk around Bingen, and as we went back to Beth’s for seconds.

That sense of comraderie was negated the next morning, when I got up at 4 in the morning, expecting to hit up some sweet deals at the Kaufhaus, and maybe hit a few Bingeners in a struggle for the last half-priced souvenir bierstein.  Imagine my disappointment to find they don’t celebrate Schwarzer Freitag here, either.

So that, I suppose, takes me to where every Thanksgiving blog should wind up: a list of what I’m thankful for this year (please excuse my sap).

  1. Thanksgiving.  What a wonderful concept for a holiday, which I take for granted when I’m stateside.
  2. America, which I also take for granted when I’m stateside.
  3. A fantastic group of Fulbrighters here, if their willingness to come together and transport casseroles and cookie doughs via train for a Thanksgiving dinner isn’t indication enough of how fantastic they are.
  4. A fantastic group of friends back home, who make the thought of getting back to America that much more attractive.
  5. A wonderful family and a best friend of a brother; sometimes I can’t believe my luck in winding up with them.
  6. A boyfriend who ships me Stove Top and who didn’t bat an eye when I told him I’d be leaving for a year, and who hopefully sticks with me despite being stuck at a measly number 6 on the “What I’m Thankful For” list.
  7. This experience, which has given me a chance to live in a beautiful part of the world, experience things in a new way, meet new people, develop new skills, and reinforce that this is not what I want to do or where I want to live forever.  I love it, but I am incredibly thankful that this year has not brought up some identity crisis I’d have to struggle with; instead, I only feel more strongly that library science is the route I want to take – and having some sort of rough outline of the future, even if this isn’t it, is definitely something to be thankful for.
  8. You, for reading.  Thanks for taking some interest in my year.

Happy Turkey Sandwich Week.  That bit, at least, I don’t miss.

All Roads Lead to Mainz

In light of recent elections, the teachers have been asking me to teach a lot of American history lessons – I guess they’re hoping I’ll be able to lend some perspective and context to what America is and why that’s so, as though the ye olde Tea Party can explain, well, the Tea Party.

But something about the quick-and-dirty timeline I’ve been passing out to the students seems, somehow, increasingly more laughable with each copy I make.  Sure, that’s partly because it starts with Columbus, as though America just materialized from the European imagination there on the Atlantic horizon, and sure, it skips from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, wham, bam, thank you ma’am – but when you’re allotted the time I have and allotted the attention spans I’ve been given, well, I had to make some editing decisions, or butchering decisions, call them what you will.

But that’s not the reason, not entirely.  Mostly, looking over this silly little timeline, it makes me realize how… how… cute our history is*.  It’s so little!  I jush wanna pinch its wittle cheeks!  Awaska hashn’t losht its wittle bay-by fat!

…ugh, I suddenly hate blogging.

My point is this: in Mainz (neighboring town of that’s-where-I-bring-my-laundry-to fame) is built on Roman ruins.  So much so, in fact, that there’s a conflict between preservation and development efforts – builders are afraid to build for fear of striking gold, by which I mean a Roman bath or mosaic or  what-have-you, because this means halting construction while archeologists do their nit-picking through ancient ship remains.  Sometimes this unearthing is incorporated (like the  monument erected to Roman general Drusus, surrounded nesting-doll style by a 17th-century citadel), sometimes it is compromised (like the temple preserved underneath a shopping mall), sometimes it goes ignored entirely (like that time the railroad plowed through the middle of a theater).

So the effect is this city built like a parfait, except not so stratified, so not really like a parfait at all: a Roman crust, a creamy layer of the Middle Ages, some Renaissance fudge, a hearty helping of 1960’s post-war fruit that you sort of scoot to one side so you can get to the chocolate, a dollop of Rococo whip cream, and a Marc Chagall cherry on top.  And, of course, if you want to overextend this metaphor, let’s not forget a spoon of a war that dug through it all and left a sad trail behind:

The shell of St. Christophskirche - which, just to add to this medley of history-upon-history, was where Gutenberg was baptized

So what am I getting at?  That American history/architecture/parfaits can’t hold a (Roman) candle?  No.  I guess all I’m saying is that an American city simply can’t attain the sort of aesthetic you find in a city like Mainz where ancient abuts the modern in a very livable way, and you probably wouldn’t trip over  an aqueduct poking out of the ground like a tree root.  In other words… places are different.  Travel highlights that.

So much for my grand conclusion.  I guess that’s the danger of musing on something like Roman ruins: essentially, you always just wind up at some derivation of “wow, that’s old.”

*Despite my blatant use of the word “cute” and my subsequent baby talk to America, I don’t actually mean to trivialize American history. Really.  I love it too.