Kids, I’m going to tell you a story*. This is a story about how I ended up sitting in an office outside of Nuremberg in a tiny town called Erlangen, Germany, which happens to be less than an hour’s drive from where I was made. It’s a true story.
I get this question a lot lately, “What do you DO now, exactly,” and I can not answer in full. I work on demos for automotive software companies. I create websites, mostly front-end now, for larger companies that know more than I do. I help organize strategies for content management, marketing communications, branding and messaging. I travel to a lot of amazing places and I meet a lot of amazing people. My job does not suck. I can tell you that.
This particular story happens in Las Vegas, Nevada, where I was working with two automotive software companies. For one, I was finishing a demo on a mobile device, let’s call it the iPad, for their sales and marketing team to show Ford, Audi, VW and Toyota. And the other, let’s call it Big Awesome German Company, I was helping out with branding and messaging and content strategy. That is to say, I was at CES for work and I got to party with some really awesome companies.
Like Microsoft, for example.
I ended up, not so much on accident, at the Microsoft party at CES. I asked a co-worker there to watch my drink: A gray goose and diet. She promised to do so as I went to the toilets. However, since I ended up meeting four people on my return, when I arrived back to the bar I looked at her quizzically. “Um, where’s my drink?” She glanced over her shoulder, “I gave it to This Guy since you took so long to get back.” “Uh,” I stammered, “Who is This Guy? HE owes me a drink.”
This Guy smiled and said Hallo.
A German! Oh but I love the Germans!
“Hallo!I” I said. “You owe me a drink!” “Ah, sorry, yes, I will get you one. Gray Goose and Coke?” “Ya,” I replied using my third word in German. He ordered and turned back to me. “Who do you work for?” I asked. He told me EB. I said, “AH! I am going to work with EB! She” I pointed to the girl I worked with, “is going to hire me to do your website!” “Ah,” he said smiling, “I am her boss.”
I recounted this story the first night I was in town at dinner with my boss, her boss, and a few others of our team.
HIs response? “Did I get you a drink?” “Yes,” I laughed as the team went red on my behalf. “Would you like another?” he asked.
And so it is that I sit, right now, next door to This Guy. It’s funny, in a way, how life works. The more myself, the more awkward and ridiculously open I can be, the more in line with my destiny I feel I become.
Let me tell you about the time I met my ex-boss on the Internet. That’s a good story, too. But for now, I will say this: If everything happens for a reason, and god we have to hope it does, then even a gray goose and coke can seem trivial, but it’s not.
*Sorry, I’ve been watching a lot of “how I met your mother” lately.
** Updated photos from my day trip to Munich. More on this later.
Because this is exactly what I’d expect to see while looking for the train station in Munich. The Man In The Mirror.
I saw a guy get off his bike and head in to this “Thai Massage” place. Totally know what he’s getting in there.
You know those days where you forget to eat for about six hours and by the time you realize it you swear your pants are already a size bigger and you must surely look anorexic or vitally ill or, say, like Angelina Jolie but without all those kids or Brad Pitt? And then when you’re in the REWE supermarket you catch a glance of yourself from the side in the fridge isle and realize you could probably stand to go another ten days plus six more hours without eating but damn those sausages look tasty.
I’m not too proud to tell you I stood for about ten minutes in the Suppe isle today. Or that I happened to get about ten packets of soup mix because HOLYLOVEOFGOD the Germans have a lot of packages of soup mixes. I think I purchased a lovely mushroom spice for which to make mushroom rosetta with if I get get the ingredient right (I have the rosetta, mix, and vassa so I think I’m covered?) and a few others for making sauces (for the aforementioned sausages). I also found some Muesli (which in German means ‘Health Nut’) with chocolate and seeds. I’m so all over this.
I can also share with you that today I had to use google translate to see what the message on my German phone was from Telekom. I felt so “Christmas Story” with the Ovaltine Decoder. I couldn’t wait to see what my message was only to find out it was an advertisement for getting more minutes with the SIM.
Like it would be a secret admirer or something. heh.
I stood at the bakery this morning stuttering out my order for a “Große Cappuccino und Ei Sandwich bitte,” when a lovely lady next to me says, “LESLIE! Oh hi!” I am still amazed I would know anyone here and even more so when they start the conversation for me. I said hello, it happened to be the gal in charge of getting me here and home, an admin at work, and we had a nice chat as I stammered in my broken german just enough to get a receipt and laugh, “Thank you for breakfast,” to her. I then biked in to work holding my cappuccino in my take-away cup and my bagel in my backpack.
But even still, with all of these experiences that I adore, places I get to see, people I run in to, there’s an emptiness that only a working parent can feel. I’m unaccustomed to coming home to silence. I’m lost without small articles of clothing to wash. I can’t stand to go a full day without seeing their small faces and hear their goofy voices. Even today, when my 7 year old was having a bad morning, I took comfort in helping her shake out of it by laughing and playing with her on Skype. I can’t imagine traveling before the Internet and Skype and FaceTime and video Chats. It is how I’ve survived.
People at work ask me about my family and if I’m homesick. “Yes,” I say honestly, “Of course. But I think day 10 was the most difficult and now I know every day is closer to me going home and I have only five days to see this site and get my work finished and write during sunset with white wine and a chocolate mouse.” The children tell me not to leave for this long again and I remember my life is not my own. It is theirs, too. I promise them to take them with me next time and show them all I’ve seen. Every corner I bike I take note to remember to tell them all they will explore. I plan on their return and I know it will happen. I will share this with them and they are beyond fortunate to get to Germany before they are 35, before their childhood dreams are long past due before it is proper to try so hard to pursue them. I don’t tell them this, instead I play with them, with a moose, on Skype, and we giggle and laugh and we find the harmony we need to make it another 22 hours before we do this again.
Then we count the days.
The days are disappearing. As excited as I am to get home I’m just as excited to get back. It’s a strange feeling to have such a belonging in more than one place. Riding my bike to the bakery, to work, to the shop: I’m learning secrets about living here. I’ve learned that it cost one Euro to get a cart at the shop so don’t bother, to always bring your own bag because there isn’t such a thing as “paper or plastic”, how to get my bra to dry in one day by air. These are important facets of life here and you only know them by experience.
It’s not that it’s all rosy, mind you. I work 15-17 hour days. I get up early, I peddle to the bakery, I peddle to work and lose time until I’m forced to leave because the market will close and I won’t eat if I don’t leave RIGHT NOW to get some salad so I can keep working at home. I say this because I focus on the positive. I love it. I thrive on it. I am using it to keep me going. I ignore the loss of hair, the extra wrinkles, the stress and pressure. I’m not writing about that because you don’t want to know about it. It’s hard. It’s tough. I’m pushed and pulled and ultimately, at times, breakable. But at the end of the day, I sit and think about how thankful I am for it all.
As much as I want to share this with my children, for now I will wait. Instead I will have a dancing moose “Ebert Baüsen” or “EB” for short, to help them cope with this long separation, one I know they’ll forget before next month. For now, this is ok. We can be silly. We can share our morning dance. I hope they will be here to see the Suppe isle, the beer gardens with playgrounds. For my six year old self, for my thirty-six year old self, for my seven year old daughter, I hope we all return soon. Because ultimately, in some strange strange way, this will be part of me. Forever.
Today I biked 15km to town and 15km back. It was sunny most of the way, lovely really, if we don’t discuss that bitch of a hill on the north side of town. I had a lot of time while peddling to think about life. I’m sure it’s what most people would do while cycling past farms and horses and old men with bread in their baskets.
There is a discipline to being alone. I understand now how monks taking a vow of silence have a strong will. To not communicate with people around you, to be shut off verbally, to be emotionally isolated even while surrounded by people, is difficult at best. I think this as I peddle to Der Beck near work. It is closed and I’m unable to ask when it opens again. I read the sign but I’m fairly sure it says it’s open Sunday through Saturday. Or Monday through Friday. Or maybe it’s Friday through the third week of the month on odd years. I have no idea. It is, obviously, closed now so however much I am craving a cappuccino I’m basically screwed.
So I continue to peddle.
I go the same route to Nuremberg that I’ve travelled before. I am thinking of how lucky I am, even as my stomach growls, to know this route. How every experience adds upon itself and stacks up to a new attitude of living. I am thinking this as I fly past a young man running on the trail. I recognize him, laugh softly, and as I pass I wave and yell, “HALLO!” to the intern that sits in my office. He laughs, waves back and says, “oh! HA! you!” I smile, continue to peddle, and think how random the universe is that I’d find a single person I actually know in this entire place of words I don’t.
I end up eating at a cafe I see randomly connected to a car dealership. It is halfway to town and I’m famished. I order in broken german, pathetic at best, and smile and nod and try to be as polite as possible when I get something correct. “Ya! Vassa! Ya!” I am excited to actually end up with the food I was wanting and sit quietly with my Kindle to read. It is almost a relief to see English words that I don’t have to translate on the screen. My mind eats up the structure of the language.
I pull in to town a half hour later and find it bustling. People are everywhere, eating ice cream, shopping in the market, dragging children to this place or that. I spend the afternoon among strangers. I hear exactly seven Americans and smile as I listen to a language I understand. It is so easy to speak this way, I think. I wonder if one day German will come as naturally and I vow to make that happen.
It is easier in a tourist place to be an English speaking person. I find a few people who understand me and offer kindly the proper words in German as I struggle. They speak English back to me and we both try on the other’s mother tongue. I find a seat outside and drink a latte in the sun. A German couple sits at the table with me as there are very few seats. It’s what you do in Europe: You share your table. There is not as much space here as there is back home. There are a lot of cultures, languages, people all in a small area and they accommodate each other by offering up chairs, the other side of the table, or a menu. I am happy to have them sitting with me even if I do not understand them or know them. It is comforting to be at a table with other people although I’m not sure why this is.
After purchasing a few gifts for family, I grab my bike and take the 15km back. I stop at the store near my work to get a few things for the weekend: food, dish soap, laundry soap. I know tomorrow I will wash my clothes in the sink and lay them on the radiator to dry. I will go to the bakery before 11 when they close on Sunday. I will take photos of the Easter trees in Erlangen. I will speak to no one. I will be lucky to find anyone who would understand me. I think of this as I sit in my quiet tiny apartment alone. I am not a monk but I rarely talk. It is something I take for granted at home and it’s teaching me the value of language. Of being emotionally available. Of connecting to people close to you or strangers you will never see again. I am learning the discipline of being present. Of not escaping to some place comforting. Of doing the difficult thing. There is no other choice here so I can not take the easy way out. I am forced in to a space I am not comfortable with and as hard as it seems at the moment, I am thankful for this time. My legs are aching with happiness as I sit and sip a glass of white wine and watch the sun set over this tiny German village. I have so much to say. And yet, in silence, I sit and sip and appreciate.
I’m a native Texan. That is to say, my mother went through 48 hellish hours of labor (thanks, Mom!) so that I could be born in to this world, and the place she endured said pain is Texas City, Texas. She told me, when I was little, she choose that particular place for me to be born because it was easy to remember. Also because she had flown from a town very difficult to say correctly (Bayrouth, Germany) and it made a lot more sense, what with my dad loving Texas and all. I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in between those tall tales and the one where my Grandmother happened to live near a hospital in Texas City, Texas, at the time and my mother and father needed a place to stay after returning to the states from many years over seas. I come from a long line of story tellers
I am sitting now under the starry night looking directly at Orion’s belt. I am drinking German beer, not because I found it at the local World Market, but because it came from the (supermarket) two blocks from where I sit. There is a church tower around the corner that dates from 1591. I am in Nuremberg. Or Nürnberg, if you’re a local. I hear the Germans on the street below and I am surrounded by the fresh smell of my laundry, the only hint of home that wafts in the dark in the breeze.
I am oddly home.
I have a sense of nostalgia here. It’s as if I’ve lived this life here, or one very similar, in other times. I am lost, in present day, unable to fully communicate except with broken pieces of German. It’s comical, really, when someone walks up to me and I say, “Hallo!” and they say, “Hallo,” and I exchange light talk, “Gruße Grote!” They begin to ask a question and I shake my head, “um.. uh.. er… uh, do you know English?” They laugh kindly, either nodding yes or no, and we smile awkwardly as I admit I am not really from here however much I sometimes forget that fact.
Except that I can never forget that fact.
The cashier at the cantina at work asks me in German what I want to eat. I make weird faces and motions with my hands saying something about Salad and Veggies and No More Bread For The Love Of God and she hands me a lovely sandwich on a thick roll with meat and cheese. I smile, say “Danke” and offer her my cash. She smiles back, say Bitte, and I am on my way to another ten pounds.
This same conversation happens fourteen times a day.
I manage around town on my bike, a borrowed vehicle from a local friend. I am thankful, a thousand times thankful, for my local friend who not only speaks English but also four other languages and has a love of pasta. This means we eat a lot of Italian at real Italian places most of which the cooks speak only Italian and hit on women like a dog on salami.
I marvel at how far I can bike. I breathe heavily as I bike the 12km from Nürnburg to Erlangen where the office is. I arrive breathless and sweaty and I smile as I enter the building, like this is a normal day for me: Just another commute to the office via bike in the villages of Germany. I mean completely nothing special. At all.
Except oh, even the horses here speak German.
I breathe deeply the air, the coveted Nuremberg air, the German-ness (if I may) of the whole experience. How I rarely understand a conversation, how lost I am daily, how nothing is open on a Sunday except two cafes, non of which serve alcohol or protein. But it has been a week now, an entire week of my living here, and I already appreciate what I heard my father saying to me so many years ago. “Oh, Leslie,” he would reflect when I was old enough to listen, “the Germans. GOD BLESS ‘EM. I love the Germans.” The hundreds, or thousands, of stories I’ve heard as a child bring me to this balcony on this day thirty years later, smelling my clean laundry on the line, listening to the Germans below, watching lights in the village flicker on or off. In a way I hardly understand, I am home. Tomorrow I walk the valley of a monastery who serves beer with my boss and her boss. We will walk the woods, drink amazing beer, reflect on work and life in the States. And again I will say to you: I am home. Oddly enough, foreign as I am, I am home.
I find myself on the matt, rushed from traffic, breathless from worry. The room dims, the instructor’s voice soothes the atoms in the air. We breathe.
The class begins and we stretch, bending over yesterday’s beers and middle-age. We look up, grasping at the sky energy. We stand tall, then lean low, we breathe heavily.
I stoop in to child’s pose, catching my breath and my resting my body. The instructor, calm energy, strong voice, tells the class to rest. “If you’ve lost control of your breathing or your heart, take a minute…”
I’m fading in to my own thoughts at these words. “Lost control of your heart…” The words bounce around the vastness of my mind: a void of sorrow and contemplation. A light, dim at first, starts to shine the very edges of my thoughts. It is not just light, it is the sun. Hope washes over the cobwebs of winter, of poor choices, of indecision. Memories of a being a child, hopeful and independent, of a girl in Germany, of a strong spirit rush back in the void’s space. Suddenly I am strong for the first time in months.
I sit now in a hippie coffee shop. It’s the kind of coffee shop you’d go to after having an epiphany at yoga. I sit across a college girl with her hair in a woolen cap. A grandmother sits near us sipping her latte and writing on twitter. The walls are adorned with swirls of abstract art, most likely a result of a night of cocaine and vodka. I’m high just staring at them.
This space, the hippie place, the women on their laptops, the older gentlemen who just hugged a hello near the cash register: this is a place as familiar as years. I do not know a single person I’ve talked to today but we share this space, this energy, and a collective memory.
I’m heading to Nuremberg again on Saturday. This may very well be the single biggest goal I’ve had since I turned seven: Living in Germany. I will be there for a few weeks at this time with an apartment and a car. I will live like a local without knowing the language. I will walk to work, greet my co-workers with “Guten Morgan” and I will find my way through the market to purchase cheese and meat and wine. I will be alone.
I was recently told by someone close to me that independence is often misunderstood loneliness. Perhaps this is true. Today I find myself alone in a crowd of strangers, all of us breathing together or working together or sharing the mind-numbing art. I understand their language. It is familiar. It is comforting.
Without that comfort I will be isolated. But there are some dreams that make no sense, aside from longevity and a child’s idealistic mind. I go and show my own children how to capture life. They plan Skype chats, videos, and a possible trip to come see my apartment in Germany as well. My children will experience a world I coveted. They will walk to the market with me and pick out the meats and cheese and we will listen on the playground as German children run past my American youngin’s. I couldn’t be more excited, more petrified, more grateful. In this way I have lost control of my heart. The emotions that ruled the past half year or more come to a climax: Life, isn’t it funny? Because if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.
There’s something funny that happens when you have children. Well, there’s a lot of not funny things that happen, like gray hairs and stretched abdominal muscles, but there are non-physical benefits to keeping people with a very young sense of humor around: Lots of ordinary things are just .. not ordinary.
The other day when leaving the house the children noticed the trashcan had blown over in the wind. “WOW!” they exclaimed, “I bet he’s never been on his side before! I wonder if he loves it?”
Because seriously, where do they come up with this stuff?
Upon much discussion about the happiness a trashcan feels in his new position, experiencing the world through this new perspective, learning new things about the ground, tires, leaves, they decided today they, too, would have a trashcan day.
So it began that we wish each other a trashcan sort of day. May you find the world renewed through a different perspective. May you experience the ordinary with new vigor. May you find solace in the potentially devastating knowing all things happen for a reason. Or at least enjoy the wind.
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