The German Agenda

Herbert is having an affair.

“Who is that woman? Your wife?”

“No,” he insists “That’s my mother!”

“She looks too old to be your mother!”

“No, she is my mother. I promise!”

“I don’t believe you!”

In a convoluted twist ending the scene above turns out to be just that, a scene. Also, no my boyfriend’s name is not Herbert. Shocker. What sounds like a made-for-TV movie exchange is an actual chapter from my German textbook. Herbert is an actor rehearsing a scene for a play with his wife, Olga, who is also an actor. We’re sitting in a German intensive language class, me and the unlikely band of misfits that constitute my new friends. Ok, technically they don’t know we’re friends yet because in my desperation to make any kind of friend I’ve panicked and am not talking at all. An amazing strategy, I know.

We’ve come from every corner of the world, my new friends and I, to learn the complicated, elusive German language. We’ve come for many difference reasons. Some of them are hopeful students, working to attend a German university in the future. Others are fleeing dire circumstances and trying to make this strange new city home. Still others are brave, adventurous types, just out experiencing the world. They’re all alert, attentive, and already seem to be speaking German like pros.

And then there’s me. I followed a man who sort of liked me, spent the week before I signed up for class eating Nutella from the jar, regularly claim to have moved to escape Donald Trump’s presidency, and have only learned the word for “matchbox” since moving here. The only thing I have going for me are some skill at language learning and the most free time I’ve had in my life. Being unemployed will do that for you.

I knew that as soon as I moved here, I was going to have to learn German. Seems like a totally normal thing to do after moving abroad, but I was living in a comfortable denial I liked to blame on being American and also Donald Trump.

Side Note: Donald Trump is a convenient excuse for literally everything bad here. People accept it readily and don’t ask further questions. You don’t speak any German??? Oh, Donald Trump! Why don’t you have any cash to pay with? Donald Trump! You’ve forgotten your reusable bags? Donald Trump! Why are you stealing my dog? Donald Trump!

While Germans can mostly all speak a gorgeous technically correct English (as most Americans assume when traveling abroad), I’m a full believer in diving in. Anyone who’s heard my atrocious Swahili can attest to that. I had already spent a few weeks in Stuttgart, avoiding talking to anyone for as long as humanly possible. But since I’m a self proclaimed academic (aka nerd/teacher’s pet) at heart and since it would be nice to have a friendship with more than just the cashier who bags my Nutella, a school seemed the only way to go. I enrolled in a 4 hour a day course, bought a new box of highlighters, and pictured long lunches laughing over German’s eccentricities with a whole slew of interesting international friends.

The first day was exactly as apparently anyone but me would expect. The other students intimidated me so much that I forgot how to socialize and spoke only to the teacher while taking copious notes. I wrote every single word she said down and then all but ran back to my house where I reunited with my Nutella jar. While I was no closer to long lunches with friends, I was sure of two things. German was the most intimidating language I had ever undertaken and I was up for the challenge.

If you ever want to learn a language quickly, an intensive course in a country that speaks it is the only way I can recommend. I spent 7 years learning French and in one month I learned German more thoroughly than I probably even wanted to (sorry, Madame Burton). I was finally learning how to live again, how to interact with the world. I could finally introduce myself, count to 10, order bread, behave like a normal human in this language that I had so stubbornly avoided for so long. Or so I thought. Which brings us back to Herbert.

There are whole books and essays written about the strangeness of language learning textbooks. My favorite author who covers the comedy of errors that can be living abroad, David Sedaris, has plenty of them and they’re all funnier than anything I say, so in lieu of this entire blog post you can just go read his books. Notice that I waited until we were well underway to throw that in. 

So Herbert is having an affair. But not really since he’s an actor and maybe his name is not Herbert. And he’s pretending to have an affair for a fictional play that is happening in my German textbook. And it’s actually all being explained by his son because reasons. All of this is to teach us German possessive pronouns: mine, hers, his, theirs. Something I’m sure you all already figured out because it is obviously a very logical and straightforward way to learn possessives. And it worked because I haven’t forgotten them but for some reason it was this chapter that lead to my epiphany.

Everything we’ve learned is to help us pick people up in bars.

Bear with me. In the three weeks that led up to this lesson we’ve learned a lot…

“Ich bin Mica. I’m Mica.”

“Ich bin 26 Jahre alt. I’m 26 years old.”

“Ich bin Lehrerin. I’m a teacher.”

“Du kannst wirklich tanzen! You can really dance!”

“Ich mochte ein Bier bitte. I’d like a beer please.”

“Na ja, er ist nicht mein Freund. Oh, he isn’t my boyfriend.”

“Bist du verheiratet? Are you married?”

“Wo wohnst du? Where do you live?”

“Ich wohne in der Nahe. I live nearby.”

Are you seeing it??? Now, Germany has a particularly older population due to World War II which I shan’t be getting into. But maybe I’m onto their clever solution. They’re not teaching us to be normal people, they’re teaching us how to flirt, get a drink, and then cover up all evidence of an affair once it’s discovered. If that isn’t the most helpful information ever, I don’t know what is.

Now, if Alex asks, I’ll just tell him the jar of Nutella hidden under the bed is my dad’s.

 

Staring Off Into Space: A Memoir

I think I have to address the elephant in the room right off the bat. I’m, for lack of a better description, horrible at blogging. Something truly surprising to everyone who knows me. As someone who loves to talk and talk and talk, particularly about myself for hours, you would think a blog would be the best way to throw more out into the void. This thing should be soaring by now because anyone who talks to me has already heard all my good material anyway. However, I have a series of perfect contradicting combinations working together to keep this thing where it probably belongs…firmly on ground. Whether its my insecurity versus my inflated sense of self or my sheer laziness versus perfectionism, none of these things add up to anything timely or cohesive.

Add that to my own hang ups about blogging in general and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. I’m an avid consumer of blogs and even a former dabbler. Insert shameless plug for “Made for Matatus” my juvenile Tumblr attempt to capture my study abroad experience in Kenya. Despite this, I’ve never really been all that comfortable with the idea of putting some palatable version of yourself out there. I appreciate the many blogs out there on all sorts of topics and admire people’s ability to self promote themselves into being their own boss.  I just can never seem to justify doing it myself and don’t even feel that they should, millions of followers or not. But then, let’s not forget, I have an inflated sense of self and feel like I’m totally charming and photogenic enough (just go with the delusion) to create consumable content.

The end result is this. The sporadic, rambling mish mash you’re reading now. I spend way too long thinking about every single thing I create. I want to take tons of pictures of myself all over the place but have self consciously only perfect one pose. The previously referenced “Staring off into space” otherwise known as the “My Face Looks Best At This Angle” (patent pending). I’m so lost in my head about all this that I create nothing, totally immobilized by my desire to make something good. It’s not about the audience (because we all know it’s just my mom and my aunt). It’s about creating something that feels authentically me.

So, the big question, why a blog? All the big lead up aside, it comes down to this. Moving to a foreign country is a huge scary f@%&*$ thing. The loneliness is real, the anxiety is real, the isolation is real. As someone who has made a habit of moving all over the place and essentially running away from my old life at every opportunity, I feel I owe it to myself and the people I’ve left behind. I’ve never known a way to make every part of my life feel cohesive and real. While that remains to be learned, I can say with certainty that this is the farthest I’ve ever felt from my own life but also the most real I’ve felt in years.

Let’s take a lesson from the crappy cult-ish self help seminar I took at the insistence  of my equally crappy ex boyfriend. Anything is possible if it occurs to you as an opportunity. Just earned the shit out of my $500. There’s an opportunity in blogging. There’s an opportunity to reach outside your bubble and make the loneliness of being far away from home feel so much smaller. So welcome to my therapy, only costs $8 dollars a month for me and makes the world a cozier place. It’s a steal. The bottom line of it all? This is a work in progress that’s aimed at me being less of a work in progress.

Elephant: Addressed. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming of me making a damn fool of myself all over Germany.

Paper or Plastic

While no one would call me well traveled, my degree in International Relations coupled with an overwhelming enthusiasm and crushing desire to be liked by other people have turned me into a particular type of person abroad. I like to think of it as the “well meaning cultural kiss ass”. This means that I make an effort to learn a little bit of the local language and customs before going to a new place. And then I proceed to enthusiastically and cheerfully butcher said language and customs all over the place.

When I first met my boyfriend, I had absolutely no idea he was German. With the relative anonymity of dating apps, I had gotten pretty used to people either lying about themselves or just strategically saving information for later. Alex, being sweet and earnest, did neither of those things. He told me all about himself, his interests, his hobbies, his favorite foods, and of course his German birthplace. I could blame my ignorance on confusion, since I find many Americans like to identify with their European heritage and describe themselves as “Italian” or “English” etc, etc.

But I think we all know that’s not the case…I’m just not a great listener.

Here was an attractive, intelligent man who responded to my text messages promptly and with evident enthusiasm, what else did I need to know? It didn’t matter that he was constantly dropping thinly veiled references to being German. Such as “When I was growing up in Germany” and “I went to university in Germany first” and the ever so vague “I’m German”. My excitement over getting to know a guy who wasn’t hiding a gambling addiction or trying to get me to attend swinger parties (Note: yes, online dating is that bad) easily overpowered everything. Add all that to my generation’s absolute adversity to picking up the phone to speak to someone and you’ve got the perfect combo.  So, despite his many attempts to inform me in advance, I showed up to our first date. He gave me a polite hug, officially introduced himself, and walked me into the bar. And with these three actions, he taught me something about myself. Apparently, I need to be hit over the head with a frying pan to get the point or, in this case, directly presented with an accent.

All of which leads up to the point. See? I did have one, promise. When I decided to move to Germany, despite a healthy interest and ability in other foreign languages, the only German I knew was the small amount of Yiddish that’s basically required for all nice Jewish girls. Oy vey! On all my previous trips to Germany I’ve only been visiting and since I have a personal translator, it’s never seemed necessary for me to learn. Once the decision to move had been made, I immediately went out and bought every book n German I could find. Then promptly proceeded to ignore them for months, minus the few times I opened them and slogged through the collections of letters that make up German words. Of course, on my official arrival, I immediately adopted my abroad persona and tried to learn the entire German language in a day. Or rather, I tried to pretend I had.

Not wanting to seem like the most American in the room, I grilled Alex on every single German phrase we heard. He indulged me and I figured I could get by just fine in this manner forever. I had planned to register for a German school at some point and had even found one online. However, since I had Alex  to guide me through everything, I clearly didn’t need to rush it. Right? Unfortunately, real life called. Alex had to go to work and not just work, but a Brazilian week-long business trip. Cue panicking. Before leaving, he tried his hardest to prepare me by giving me some every day phrases. Being me, I locked on to one I recognized from our trips to the store, believing it to be my most necessary:

Wollen Sie einen Kassenbeleg? Do you want a receipt.

Timeless, classic, and practically guaranteed to get me through my fabulous new European life. Here in Stuttgart, many sales people like to give you the benefit of the doubt and will continue to speak German to you if you greet them in German, changing it from hello to hallo (HEY that’s the name of the blog). Plus, the price is always written on the cash register’s screen. So, it takes very little to get through a sales interaction and keep convincing yourself you’re passing as a local. Hence why “Wollen Sie einen Kassenbeleg” really was a practical sentence to commit to memory. Every transaction Alex and I had together thus far had ended with that exact question.

So, armed with my phrase and the response, an assertive but polite “Nein, danke” (no, thanks), I ventured out for my first solo grocery store trip. I was psyched, I was ready.

Wollen Sie einen Kassenbeleg? Nein, danke. Wollen Sie einen Kassenbeleg? Nein, danke. Wollen Sie einen Kassenbeleg? Nein, danke. Wollen Sie einen Kassenbeleg? Nein, danke. WOLLEN SIE EINEN KASSENBELEG? NEIN, DANKE.

I approached the register, my basket of groceries hanging confidently from my arm.

Me: Hallo! I am crushing this.

Her: Hallo! *she rings up my items* Zweiundzwanzig Euro, bitte. Yep, absolutely nailing this. 

Me: *quick glance at the register’s screen because I heard the word Euro and know it means a number was just said. Sees 22, hands over 25 Euro just in case*

Her: *counts out change* I know what’s coming, we’re in the homestretch. Wollen Sie einen Kassenbeleg? Nein, danke. Mike drop, leave the store. 

Her: Oh entshuldingung, motchen Sie eine Tute?

EXCUSE ME WHAT.

Me: *panics* OMGIMSOSORRYIDONTSPEAKANYGERMANIMAMERICANWHATDOESTHATMEAN

Her: *smiles* Would you like a plastic bag?

Cover. Blown.

Me: Oh, no thank you. *hastily grabs all items and runs out of the store*

What was the name of that German school again?

 

Pictured: All of my grocery store purchases. Because, America, clearly. 

 

 

Winging It

The man at the airline counter is talking to me. Ok, more like at me. He’s cheerful, pleasant, polite, and I’m too busy plotting ways to get him fired to hear a word he’s saying. As the reality of my situation becomes abundantly clear, I pull myself away from various airport murder scenarios to get real with myself. This man has really done absolutely nothing to cause my current predicament. I got there all on my own.  There are approximately 5 and a half reasons I’m upset with myself at the moment:

  1. I am moving to Germany in 2 hours to move in with a boyfriend I haven’t seen in 9 months.
  2. The three suitcases heaped at my feet are (shocker) all undeniably over the weight limit
  3. I’ve completely forgotten to get a visa which means I need to book a return ticket immediately as in right right now at the counter.
  4. I’ve learned  absolutely no German except the word for bread (because, priorities)
  5. I am not being nice to the airline man, something I’ll inevitably feel bad about for about the next 15 months or so

        and

     5 1/2. My mom is here.

Now, my mom is easily the most level headed, supportive person ever so why is that fueling my current bout of self loathing?  Because her calm, understanding presence is reminding me of how grown up I am not. It makes the lump in my throat bigger and the reality of my move undeniable. The tears that have been threatening to fall all day are stinging the back of my eyes and I’m finding it hard to breathe. The airport is a wonderful place to have an emotional meltdown, I doubt anyone would even blink in my direction. I even hear SFO has a pig somewhere for this exact cause. However, I’ve just gotten brand new eyelash extensions and am not about to sacrifice them to an ill timed airport fit. What else is there to do but swallow hard and give myself a mental pep talk.

“Ok girl, you’re just going to take these bags to the side and find some cheap ass flight to the US. Anywhere is fine, Minnesota might be cheap. What?? Where did that come from? You’ve got this. Your eyelashes look awesome. It’s totally fine that you didn’t plan your international move at all. There’s nothing wrong with that. Tons of people plan literally nothing like idiots…wait no, no, no keep going with the nice stuff. Your eyelashes look totally awesome. You’re just going to let your mom help you one more time. Like a useless baby…NOPE positive thoughts only. You’ve got this…and great eyelashes…..”

There’s so much people tell you about moving to Europe.  A lot of it has to do with what an exciting adventure you’re going on, how jealous they are, and how you’re just going to eat SO much amazing bread.  Fond memories and anecdotes about study abroad programs are recalled and repeated often and affectionately. Having studied abroad in Kenya back in the day and evidently missed the rose colored days of a European semester abroad, I was more than ready for one of my own. Adult study abroad anyone?  I was more than happy to jump on images of pastries, wine hills, ancient cathedrals, and cobblestone lined streets in the moonlight. I was so taken by these ideas that I totally and utterly failed to do any sort of logistical planning. I thought I’d just figure it out as it goes. As long as there were pretzels to eat and wine to drink, what could go wrong?

So here I am in the airport with, in the plot twist to end all plot twists, everything going wrong. At least as far as I’m concerned. But, of course, because my mom is there everything turns out alright with the baggage and the return ticket. She and my brother (dragged along for most likely this exact reason) rearrange my belongings and book a ticket back for Thanksgiving. Problems solved all around.  She’s calm and still convinced there’s a world of pastries and moonlit cobblestones in my future. More than anything, she believes in me (for some reason) and in the wonderful man (for much clearer reasons) I’m moving to be with. What more does a girl need?

I dwell on this as I go through security, just long enough for me to totally forgive the airline man. I’ve even managed to forgive myself a little bit , deciding to direct any remaining aggression at my boyfriend. He is, of course, asleep in Germany and therefore has done nothing at all to deserve it. This makes him the perfect target. I board the plane and am settled in my seat, working up a nice long list of things that I can unnecessarily blame him for when the flight attendant approaches, startling me.

“Would you like a drink ma’am?”

Flustered, I indicate the complimentary water bottle I picked up off my seat.

“Oh, no thank you. I already have one.”

“Oh no ma’am, don’t you want the wine that comes with your dinner?”

What more does a girl need?