Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dear Santa...

Dear Santa,

I know I haven’t always been your biggest fan and for that I am sorry. It’s really not your fault that you’ve become so commercialized. And even I can admit that it was unnecessary for my three-year-old self to deny your existence so loudly and so publicly. But, in spite of my skepticism, you really came through for me this year and so this is a thank you note (bet you don’t get many of those, huh?).

Christmas Eve in Stade
Truthfully, I sort of expected Christmas to suck this year. Of course I know that Christmas is really about celebrating the birth of Jesus and while I appreciate that on a number of levels and know that Jesus will be with me wherever I go, it was still hard to picture the holiday thousands of miles from the ones I love most. Plus, you’ve tasted my mom’s cookies so you know they’re worth being home for…

But, miraculously, Christmas didn’t suck. In fact, I got to spend it with a dear friend who flew all the way from Spain to spread a little holiday cheer. Since Hannah and I lived together for two years in college we already know most of each other’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, plus we have a lot of shared history so it was almost like being with family. Besides, Hannah has all the qualities a person could want in a Christmas Away from Home Companion: she’s a good conversationalist, willing to improvise and basically fearless.

The church decorated for Christmas
Not only did we make Christmas dinner, exchange gifts, go ice skating (I fell a lot but it was still fun!) and chat endlessly about our newfound European lives, but we even attended a Christmas Eve church service here in Stade. The church was packed! People were even sitting in the aisles and on the floor. Hannah and I ended up in the balcony with a bird’s eye view of the entire thing. And while neither of us understood much, I was genuinely touched when we started to sing Silent Night in German. It reminded me that the Christmas spirit doesn’t live in one language.

In the midst of my safe and happy Christmas traditions I sometimes forget that Mary and Joseph were out of their element on that first Christmas, too. But I remembered this time… and since you are always traveling for the holiday, I think you might have had something to do with sending a little extra joy and understanding to a tiny apartment in Germany this year.

Hannah and I enjoying Christmas dinner
From the bottom of my overflowing heart: thank you.

Here’s to Believing Again,


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas, Christmas Everywhere!

Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmastime.
-Laura Ingalls Wilder

Spending Christmas in a foreign country is strange. Everything from the cookies people bake to the songs they sing are different. And while I strongly believe that experiencing difference is good for the soul, it can also be a little bit distressing—especially around the holidays when people are already more apt to call upon tradition and family.

However, if you ever have to spend a Christmas abroad and you have the good fortune to choose the country in which you do it, I’d go for Germany. Seriously, it’s like they invented Christmas. Okay, so technically that title goes to Jesus, but most of our traditions and celebrations actually come from the Germans. And they really, really know how to celebrate.

Welcome to Lübeck!
So this weekend I made a conscious decision to pull myself out of my “Boo-hoo I’m not home for the holidays” funk (because nobody likes a whiner) and get into the Christmas spirit—German style. I woke up early on Saturday morning, grabbed a train schedule and set off for Lübeck, a town about 45 minutes from Hamburg.

Back in the day Lübeck was one of the most important shipping and trading ports in Northern Europe. Today it is a medium-sized town devoted mostly to tourism and the making of marzipan. Marzipan, for those of you who are not well-versed in strange foreign candies, is a sweet paste made from almonds. It can be shaped into virtually anything and it is HUGE in Germany at Christmastime. The Germans didn’t invent it, but they did perfect it and today Lübeck is the marzipan center of the world.

The market inside St. Peter's Church
Lübeck also offers some rather unique Christmas markets that take place inside several of the town’s largest cathedrals. I thought this sounded really interesting (and also a lot warmer than shopping outside in December) and so I headed off with my trusty guide book in hand to see what all the fuss was about.

I can now tell you that the fuss was about hand-made pottery, beautifully carved nativity scenes, handmade glass ornaments, giant Advent calendars and more food and drink than one nation should consume. Ever.

It was wonderful! I shopped and ate my way through town, experiencing Kartoffelpuffer (potato cakes), Glüwein (hot, spiced red wine), bratwurst, chocolate covered bananas, Zimtmandeln (cinnamon roasted almonds) and Dresdenerbrot (bread with cheese, mushrooms and ham baked into the center and sour cream on top). I also looked at some wonderful German handicrafts like nutcrackers (yep, the Germans invented those), smoking men (little men who “smoke” when you place incense in them), beautifully crafted ornaments, and Advent calendars (another German invention).

When I started to get cold I hopped a train back to Hamburg and took a little nap as we zipped back toward the big city. Of course, by the time we got back to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof I was feeling refreshed and set out to explore Hamburg’s markets. Granted, I had already seen these markets several times and I certainly didn’t need to spend more money but I was really in the Christmas spirit and no logic could overtake me. So, through the dark and drizzling night I set off to find some more Christmas cheer. And boy did I find it. I also found an ornament and a beautifully painted wooden “gingerbread” house that are going to look beautiful in my first home J

By the time I got back to Stade I was freezing cold and exhausted, but also much happier. It finally felt like Christmas…

Monday, December 12, 2011

Peace and Love in Paris

I’ve been tip-toeing around this since my post about settling down, but today I have decided to come forward with the brutal truth: I am ready to go home.

Don’t get me wrong, I know what an amazing opportunity I have been afforded by being able to live in Germany. I have had dozens of beautiful experiences that I will treasure for the rest of my life and my language skills have improved exponentially since arriving in August. I have met some amazing people and learned a lot about myself.

That being said, for the first time in my adult life I actually know what I want. Instead of aimlessly bouncing from one thing to the next I am starting to form a legitimate life plan, complete with career goals and a 401K (see, Dad, I’m not going to starve!). And I’m excited about it. Truly, genuinely excited.

And, because patience is not one of my many virtues, now that I know what I want, I am ready to come out swinging. I want to go after my dreams 110%. Only I can’t, because I am in Germany. And while I know that I should be living in the moment and enjoying my time abroad (and I do enjoy it), it’s difficult not to feel trapped. It’s a strange conundrum, to say the least.

Last week was particularly difficult. Perhaps it’s because the holidays are rapidly approaching and I am not too happy about being away from home, or maybe it’s because I worked several long days and never quite felt like I was able to catch up on my sleep, but either way, I was not in a good mood on Friday when I set out for the train station to catch a night train to Paris.

Even as I type this, I can’t help but think it makes me sound selfish. I was going to Paris to spend a weekend celebrating an early Christmas with Claire and Bre and I was in a bad mood about the whole thing. I didn’t want to deal with the night train, I didn’t want to haul my overstuffed backpack across two countries and I most certainly didn’t want to think about going back to work the next week. So, selfish or not, there it is.

My mood was not improved when I got on the train and discovered that I was to be sharing a sleeping car (6 beds in a sardine-sized room) with 4 strange men who smelled funny. Not only was I unsure about sleeping alone in a locked room with a group of men, but the smell was really overwhelming.

However, there are moments in life when God knows that we’ve reached our breaking point and He throws us a bone. So, when the conductor came by and explained, in German, that there was a free bed in the next car over, I was more than happy to move my things. I ended up sharing a sleeping berth with two girls who were about my age, and when the conductor explained that since I was a woman traveling alone he would rather have me sleep somewhere “safer,” I was genuinely touched. I have been on my own since arriving in Germany and so I sometimes forget how wonderful it can be to have someone else look out for you, even if that someone is a stranger.

Claire and I enjoying the lights of Paris
Shockingly, I had a wonderful night of sleep on the train and when I met Claire and Bre in Paris I was ready to go. We spent the next two days exploring the city, eating good food and drinking good wine—and of course, staying up way too late talking! Even though I had been to Paris before, it was fun to see the city decorated for Christmas and to explore it with two French speakers who actually know what they are doing (and how to navigate the Paris public transportation system!).

The most interesting sight we saw was the Paris Catacombs. In the 1700’s Paris’ cemeteries were overflowing and many churches had taken to burying the poor in mass graves. However, by the 1780’s the thousands of decomposing bodies had oversaturated the earth and were contaminated the ground water, leading to rampant disease. So, the graves were exhumed and the bones of some 6 million Parisians were moved underground, to the catacombs. The priests would move the bodies in the night, carting wagon loads of bones across the city while chanting prayers for the dead. Today you can tour the catacombs and see the bones. It is very eerie, but a wonderful piece of history.

Sacre-Couer-- "For 125 years, here day and
night, somebody has been praying to the Lord."
On Sunday afternoon before I caught another night train back to Germany, Claire and I went to tour Sacre-Couer, or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, which sits on the highest spot in Paris and overlooks the city. I have toured many famous churches during my European travels and, to be honest, most of them are so commercialized that they don’t feel very much like churches anymore. I was expecting the Sacre-Couer to have a very secular feel as well since, after Notre Dame, it is the second most famous cathedral in Paris.

However, the atmosphere inside the church was very reverent and I immediately felt as though I had stepped into the house of God. Voices hushed. Cameras turned off. Footsteps became lighter. Claire, who has also been dealing with her own major life decisions, and I spent a long time in the church, just taking it all in.

In the end, we each lit a candle and said a prayer and as I placed my little tea light in amongst the thousands of other already lit candles, I was struck by just how many prayers were said in that space each day. How many pleas, confessions and thanksgivings were humbly offered every hour. I thought about my own homesick, exhausted prayer for peace and, with tears in my eyes and a very dear friend at my side, I returned to the streets of Paris. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chit Chat

Now, no matter what my weekend plans were, I would have been thrilled to wake up on Friday morning. This is because last Friday marked two very important occasions: My first weekend off in 2 weeks, and the end of The Disease. However, because my friends Bre and Claire were scheduled to arrive in Stade at 9:30am I awoke overjoyed with my newfound health and free time.

Bre, Claire and Me in Hamburg
For weeks I have been raving about the German Christmas markets to anyone who will listen and Claire and Bre, who are actually close enough to come see what all the fuss is about, took a night train from France to spend the weekend in my tiny apartment and check out the miracle that is Germany at Christmastime (Seriously, these people invented Advent Calendars, Christmas trees, glass ornaments and gingerbread, how can Christmas not be magical here?).

On Saturday the three of us took the train in to Hamburg to check out the Christmas markets which dot the city. Each market has a little different feel but my personal favorite is the one near the historic Rathaus (town hall). It has hundreds of booths filled with handmade toys and crafts, candles, Christmas decorations and all sorts of German delicacies from Glühwein (spiced, heated red wine) to traditional bratwurst. Everything is lit with Christmas lights and three times daily Santa Claus rides overhead in a sleigh rigged to a zip line. It was epic—especially with Claire, who eats like a horse and insisted on trying every German food she could get her hands on.

On Sunday we went to church together and celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas with a feast of turkey, potatoes and corn. I genuinely enjoyed showing off my little corner of the world and feel like Claire and Bre got a good taste of life in Germany. However, it was our late-night conversations over French wine and piles of dirty dishes that meant the most to me. True, we could have had conversations like this back in the USA (in fact we have, and probably will again), but there is something about being in a small, badly furnished apartment in foreign country that turns regular conversations into diamonds.

We discussed everything from French politics to boys (no matter how mature, well-educated or well-traveled you think you are, this topic is bound to baffle). We talked about career aspirations, learning a foreign language, expat life and a dozen other things that were at once life-altering and silly. I laughed until I cried, told the brutal truth and took a few pieces of well-aimed advice. In the end, I don’t think any of us reached any earth-shattering conclusions (in fact, I think it’s safe to say that all three of us currently have more questions than answers in this little game of life), but the talks were therapeutic nonetheless.

It turns out that spending hours upon hours chatting with people I love and trust was exactly what the doctor ordered after 3 months of chaos and a week of vomit. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011


I debated titling this entry something a bit more appealing, but if you can’t blog about puke then what’s the point, really? Besides, vomit is exactly what my last three days have been all about…

I woke up around 4am on Tuesday morning with a funny feeling in my stomach. Now, on Monday night I had eaten a bunch of Thanksgiving leftovers that (thanks to a lack of Tupperware) were packaged more or less haphazardly so at first I thought maybe my stomach was simply rebelling over something I ate. Rolling over, I forced myself back to sleep until my alarm went off two hours later.

By six o’clock I wasn’t feeling any better. In fact, I was feeling worse. I had to stop in the middle of my shower to sit down because I thought I might pass out and even after putting make-up on I still looked like a ghost. A normal person would have called in sick to work but I trudged up the stairs and breezed in to my host family’s apartment. My host mother’s first words were: Welcome to my hospital. The two oldest kids had been up all night throwing up. A light bulb clicked somewhere inside my head but instead of explaining my symptoms like a normal person (I have an extreme work ethic that sometimes verges on insanity), I headed to the kitchen to start washing bottles.

About five minutes in to washing I started to see bright spots and I knew I was going to throw up. I always get really dizzy right before I hurl. Slowly, calmly, I turned to put the last of the bottles on the drying rack and that’s when it happened: the heaving. Covering my mouth with my hand I ran for the guest bathroom, tripping over a toy and my own purse on the way and very nearly going face first into a wall (looking back I can see this being somewhat comical). I could hear my host mom calling after me just as I made it to the toilet to puke my guts out. Twice.

I spent the rest of Tuesday in bed. Literally. I slept for 20 hours. It was like a coma. And at the end of the coma I still felt sick and nauseous but, because I’m stupid, on Wednesday morning I trudged my way back upstairs—this time to find that both of my host parents were also sick (in the end, the only one who escaped what we are now collectively referring to as “The Disease” was the baby).

On Wednesday I made it through 3 hours of watching the baby while my host parents slept before I crawled back to my apartment and took a six hour nap. I also managed to eat an apple without wanting to rip my stomach from my body afterwards so I knew that things were looking up.

This morning I tried once again to help out as much as I could but after only a few hours of work I was given the rest of the day off. I was also given some delicious homemade chicken noodle soup (courtesy of my host mom) and an Advent calendar complete with chocolate and a C.D. of German Christmas music, so I wouldn’t call the day a complete loss J

All in all, The Disease is not something I care to repeat. Ever. The sweat-sleep-vomit mixture I lived in on Tuesday and Wednesday was completely and utterly miserable. But, I can now add “become disgustingly ill in a foreign country” to my list of life accomplishments… See, there’s always a silver lining, just have to know where to look

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cranberries and Pumpkin and Turkey-- Oh My!

Sometimes, no matter how smart or resourceful or tough you think you are, life kicks you in the face. This week, between being away from my family at Thanksgiving, learning that my grandma was seriously injured in a bad car accident and having to work during my weekend I sort of felt like life had delivered a round-house kick to my jaw.

But, today, while still staggering from the blows, I was reminded that even in the middle of chaos there is beauty and joy…

To be honest, my weekend of work (my host parents were out of town) went quite well. The children (who I adore, by the way), were quite well-behaved and helpful. I didn’t even mind getting up in the night with the baby as much as I thought I would. Additionally, my host dad’s mother came to help out, which was a wonderful surprise. Not only is she great with the kids, but I genuinely like and admire this woman. She’s one of those people who makes you feel instantly at ease, a rare quality that cannot be faked or learned.

Kristin and I in my TINY kitchen
That being said, I was still thankful to be freed from childcare duty when my host parents returned home on Sunday afternoon. Not only was I ready for a little time away from work, but I was also looking forward to making an expat Thanksgiving dinner with Kristin, who also happens to be a misplaced American.

 Now, if we had been smart, Kristin and I would have started planning this little meal ahead of time, especially since we both know how difficult it can be to find certain American ingredients (cranberries and pumpkin come to mind) in Germany. However, being smart is overrated and so we started planning on Friday evening. Kristin emailed me a few recipes, I made a grocery list and early Saturday morning before I had to be up with the kids I ran to the grocery store and bought as many of the necessary ingredients as I could find. I then returned to my apartment and logged on to Facebook to check in with Kristin. Our conversation went a little something like this:

Me:  I couldn’t find thyme, dry mustard or sage but I’ve got everything else. Hopefully this isn’t an epic fail.
Kristin: I found cranberries at the grocery store and I’m going to make a pumpkin pie. Whatever else happens, it will be fine.
Me: WOOT! Cranberries! You are my hero.
Kristin: I’m taking the 12:30 train. See you on Sunday.
Me: Bring garlic.
Kristin: On the train? With the pie and the cranberries?
Me: And don’t forget the wine.
Kristin: All this on the train…
Me: People will think you’re crazy.
Kristin: Who cares? We have pumpkin pie.
Me: And cranberries.

Our wonderful meal!
And so commenced the most epic Thanksgiving meal ever.

In my tiny kitchen with my desk as a table and a beeswax candle for ambiance, Kristin and I made a feast… turkey breast (It looks dry? Pour some more wine over it), mashed potatoes (Why do they look so pasty?), green beans (What can we do to spice these up? Add onions and garlic—and wine!), sweet potatoes (Let’s just make up a recipe as we go) and pumpkin pie (It survived the train ride!).

We didn’t have all the proper utensils or ingredients, we used an online converter just to figure out what temperature to preheat my Celsius oven to and the turkey almost ended up splattered on the floor. But the meal was glorious. And delicious. And soul-soothing.

The combination of good company, good food and just a hint of the outrageous made for a magical afternoon this American expat won’t soon forget. 
Pumpkin Pie

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Finding Thankfulness

It is Thanksgiving Day and, to be honest, I didn’t wake up feeling very thankful. The Germans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving and so, not only am I thousands of miles from everyone I love, but there isn’t a pumpkin pie in sight. While my family is gathering around a table filled with my favorite foods, I am going about business as usual and trying not to think about holidays of any sort. I don’t even have the usual “tomorrow is Friday!” mantra to help me get through because this weekend my host parents are going out of town and I have the kiddos. And, because one good turn deserves another, it’s been gloomy and gray here all day.

I’d like to say that as the day wore on I magically snapped out of my poor mood and was singing Christmas carols by lunchtime, but it isn’t true-- because some days are difficult and this is one of them.

However, just because a day is hard doesn’t mean it needs to be bad. And so, I have once again decided to choose joy. On this Thanksgiving, when I am so far away from the familiar, these are the things I am thankful for:

German Christmas cookies
I could dedicate an entire blog to Germany at Christmastime. It’s magical. And the baked goods are to die for. It’s difficult to be in a bad mood while munching on Spekulatius and Lebkuchen.

An unexpected afternoon off
This afternoon my host mom unexpectedly gave me the afternoon off and it was a wonderful surprise, especially since I am working all weekend. I have been entertaining myself with Christmas cookies (see previous entry) and a good book.

Other expat friends
While I know my family misses me and sympathizes with my no-turkey plight, you can’t quite understand what it’s like to spend a holiday in a foreign country unless you actually do it. And so, today, I am thankful for all of the wonderful people I know who are scattered throughout the world eating canned soup and pretending it’s a feast. Sometimes just knowing that you aren’t the only one makes a world of difference.

Snail mail
Yesterday I received a card in the mail from a very dear friend and it made my day. It is currently propped up next to my alarm clock and every time I look at it I smile. Email is fabulous and I love Facebook as much as the next person, but there’s something sort of special about taking the time to address an envelope and buy a stamp.

As much as I hate the homesickness when it creeps up on me (and it does creep, you never see it coming and then BAM it slaps you in the face), I am thankful that I have a home to miss. And, of course, I am thankful for the people who make it home. I am thankful for their laughter, their support, their emails and cards. I am thankful for the thousands of stories that we share and for the thousands more we haven’t written yet.

On this day, in this country, I am thankful. And it is enough.

Sending Much Love,


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Amen from Across an Ocean

It isn’t a terribly popular thing to admit, but here it is anyway: I am a churchgoer.

Now, for those of you whose palms are already starting to sweat, please don’t hit the “back” button on your browser. I assure you this is not a poor attempt at internet evangelism. It is, however, a post about church and so I thought I should lay my cards on the table right from the get-go: I attend church regularly. I believe in God. I read my Bible. I pray daily. I am what some people would call “religious.”

St. Cosmae
And so, with those facts in mind, it will surprise no one when I say that I have been going to church here in Germany. In fact, I have found a wonderful Lutheran church right here in Stade and have been attending worship each Sunday since my arrival in August.

The Church of St. Cosmae is a beautiful building with an organ dating to the mid-1600’s and a spire that dominates the city. And each Sunday a traditional Lutheran service is held. Now, I am not one of those people who believes that if a church service has a contemporary feel it is somehow bad or wrong. In fact, I like contemporary Christian music and often attend less than traditional services at my church back in Minnesota (sometimes we even have drums and guitars—gasp!).

However, when you’re attending a church service in a foreign language having a little bit of tradition to back you up is truly a blessing. I remember my very first Sunday at church, back when I knew even less German than I know now (which is really saying something), and at one point in the service everyone stood and began reciting something from memory. After only a few lines I instinctively understood that my fellow parishioners were saying The Apostles Creed. After a lifetime of reciting that creed each Sunday the rhythm of the words is so ingrained in me that it really doesn’t matter if it’s English or not. I just get it. Granted, I couldn’t pick out more than three or four of the German words and certainly couldn’t follow along in the traditional sense, but I knew what they were saying. I knew what they were professing.

Inside the church
Of course, even in the face of tradition, there have certainly been moments when I was out of my element. For example, a few weeks ago I was sitting in church and everything was going exactly as it had every other Sunday until a middle-aged woman stood up, lit a candle and said something in German. Slowly, other people followed suit. I caught a few snippets of phrases and realized that they were each thanking God for something as they lit the candles. I had never seen anything like it before and felt vaguely panicked as I tried to ascertain whether or not I, too, would be forced to stumble through a bad German thank you in front of everyone (admittedly, I knew no one was going to bodily drag me from my pew if I didn’t go light a candle, but I didn’t want to be the only person in the church who didn’t thank God for something).

The first time I attended a service where communion was being served was also a moment of some concern, and embarrassment. I am used to being dismissed by rows to receive communion so when everyone started to stand and move forward en masse I stayed in my seat and waited for instructions that were never going to come. Eventually, I realized my error and had to rush to the altar at the last second, where the pastor was waiting for me with a smile and a communion wafer.

The organ
But, all in all, my cultural faux pas at church have been fairly minimal. Indeed, I feel safe and content when I slide into my wooden pew each week (I’m Lutheran; of course I sit in the same pew each week). I greet the old woman who always sits next to me with a smile and I pull out my piece of notebook paper where I have written The Apostle’s Creed and The Lord’s Prayer in German so that I can finally follow along. I try hard to sing the hymns, some of which are new, many of which are familiar friends. I make valiant attempts to understand the sermon and smile when I have even the vaguest idea about what’s going on. When we bow our heads and everyone else sends silent German prayers Heavenward, I say my confessions and thank yous in English.

And in those moments I remember that even though I am an ocean apart from my life in America, God has not stayed behind and left me to fend for myself on this latest adventure. Instead, He is here with me, guiding His wayward daughter through all sort of struggles and triumphs.

English. German. It doesn’t matter. Amen is the same in both languages.   

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thoughts From The Middle

During my AmeriCorps VISTA year I was often teased for being the “countdown girl” because once a month at our VISTA staff meetings I would take a moment to remind my cohorts how much time we had completed on our terms of service and also how many months we had left to go. This is not to imply that I didn’t enjoy my year of VISTA service or wished that it would be over. On the contrary, I loved being a VISTA and still consider it to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

The countdowns weren’t really about counting down at all. They were about marking the passage of time, about taking a moment to think about where we had been and where we hoped to go. They were an opportunity for self-reflection and, maybe, for self-correction…

Much like my countdowns during my VISTA year, I have been “counting down” my months in Germany. Once again, not because I am crippled by some desperate need to go home immediately, but because I think an unexamined journey isn’t much of a journey at all.

Tomorrow is my three-month anniversary in Germany. This means it has been exactly three months since I’ve stepped foot on American soil, seen my friends and family, driven a car, eaten at Chipotle or shopped at Target. It also means that I have exactly three months left until I board a west-bound plane for home. It means that, after tomorrow, I will be more than halfway done with this journey.

Now, those of you who read this blog faithfully will certainly have noticed that my time in Germany hasn’t exactly shaped up as I expected it to. The language barrier has been brutal, I am struggling with some very grown-up feelings about wanting to “settle down,” and life as an au pair is a bit like living in a wonderfully crazy twilight zone. Additionally, I really miss Mexican food.

That being said, when I look back on the last three months I am amazed at everything that has unfolded. I started language classes in a foreign country, conquered the German train system, flew in my first small plane, took a nine-day solo journey that spanned two countries, survived Austria with a 2-year-old, laughed until I cried and cried so hard it was difficult to breath. I have been homesick, heartsick and actually sick. I’ve eaten a pig knee and sang drinking songs with Germans. I’ve been kicked in the face by life and, on the good days, I’ve kicked right back.

It’s been a hell of a ride and, to be honest, there have been many moments when I wasn’t entirely sure I would survive until the finish line. But, as Janis Ian once said, “Once you’re halfway home, you know you can probably get the rest of the way there.”

Sending Much Love,


Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Theatrical Experience

The beautiful thing about travel is that it forces a person to reexamine the mundane.

Certainly the big, exciting things that always appear in guide books make travel interesting and fun, but what makes it beautiful are those little, unexpected moments that take you completely by surprise. Because even though you will never forget the way you felt the first time you caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, it’s the crazy moment in the bathtub when you realize that you have no idea how to take a French shower (kneeling or sitting, never standing), that will turn your world upside down, even if only for a second.

Those experiences that take us back to square one, to a childlike naiveté about how the world operates, are the experiences that force us to rethink the things we thought we understood so thoroughly. Take, for example, my recent experience at a German movie theater. Now, I have been to dozens of movies in many different theaters in my 24 years on this planet. I know the drill: walk in, buy ticket, buy popcorn, complain about prices, discuss seats, find seats, sit down, shut up, enjoy.

However, as soon as Kristin and I walked into the only English movie theater in Hamburg I knew that this was not going to be a typical experience. The theater itself is small, with only one screen that shows two movies each day. But being small by no means indicates that the theater was boring. In fact, it was striking. There was a bar and lounge area where cocktails and appetizers were being sold, the concessions stand offered beer and organic snacks in addition to staples like popcorn and candy, and the ticket counter had a seating map next to it where people could choose their assigned seats.

As Americans who are used to multi-screen theaters with crushed popcorn on the floors, Kristin and I were both instantly enamored with the atmosphere. As we sat down in the lounge area to wait for the theater doors to open we listened as a flood of German and English conversation flowed around us and I realized that, for the first time in nearly three months, I could safely assume that everyone in my vicinity understood my native language.

When the doors opened and we were able to go into the theater and find out seats I was once again amazed to find not only a balcony, but a beautifully lit stage with a curtain hiding the big screen. People talked and laughed loudly as we settled in and waited for the movie to begin, and I couldn’t help but smile as I thought about the hushed whispers Americans use as soon as they enter a theater, even if the movie isn’t set to start for another ten minutes.

The movie itself (a romantic comedy that premiered in the USA months ago) was so-so, but the experience was phenomenal. It was a completely new take on everything I thought I knew about movie theaters. And even though going to the movies in Germany didn’t leave me with any remarkable cultural insights or breakthrough moments of self-discovery, it did make me feel a little like a kid watching the first snowfall: surprised, delighted and just a little bit giddy. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Queen of Romance...Sorta

My romantic entanglements have been about as tame as a fluffy white kitten. In fact, the whole history of Christina’s love life can be summed up as: a boyfriend in high school, a few dates in college, a couple of nibbles that never went anywhere and a whole lot of nothing in between.

I like to think that men are simply intimidated by my stunning good looks and unsurpassed wit, but the truth is probably that most guys simply don’t care to get involved with someone whose life plan consists of a shrug and the phrase, “Maybe I’ll join the Peace Corps or something…”

Truthfully, I don’t really think about my love life (or lack thereof) very often. Certainly I have moments when I wonder if I really am headed down the Crazy Cat Lady path, but mostly I’m too busy to worry about it all that much. This is not to say that I don’t believe in marriage or wish to remain single forever. On the contrary, I think marriage is a beautiful thing and hope that someday I will meet someone just reckless enough to think binding himself to me for the next fifty years is a good idea.

However, in the meantime I have no desire to hash and rehash my romantic affairs. And so, when A* asked me this week if I had a boyfriend I was taken a bit by surprise. Of course, I answered truthfully, saying no and thinking that would be the end of the conversation. But it wasn’t. She was out for the whole sordid tale, from elementary school to the present day.

Did I have boyfriends before?
How many?
For how long?
How old was I when I had these boyfriends?
Did I go out on dates?
How many dates had I been out on?
Where did we go?
What did we do?

Aware of the fact that this conversation was being conducted in English, which is not A’s first language, I tried very hard to answer as clearly as possible, all the while with visions of a misunderstanding about my love life leading to my deportation dancing in my head. Additionally, I am not aware of dating conventions in Germany, or of the rules/thoughts of A’s parents on the subject. As such, I probably sounded like a broken record, starting every answer with, “I don’t know what it’s like in Germany, but in America…”

Now, as someone who grew up wanting to know everything about everything, I know a fishing expedition when I see one. A was not asking me these questions because she was curious about my life. She was asking because she wants to know how my experiences might or might not relate to her own. Perhaps there is a boy at school that she likes or maybe she’s been discussing dating with her friends. Either way, she wanted the low-down and since I’m not her mom but am old enough to actually know something about the subject, I was the best target. Our conversation ended when it was time for A to go to bed and she has yet to broach the subject again (probably because she learned that my love life isn’t exactly worthy of writing home about).

I am hoping that I said the right things to her, that I treated her fairly, that I was open enough to stave off any embarrassment she might have had. Matters of the heart are difficult at any age, but I remember being a teenager and wanting so badly to understand what this weird boy-girl stuff was all about. And so I give A a lot of credit for asking the questions—and in English, no less.

Of course, I didn’t tell her that the questions don’t magically answer themselves as we get older. I didn’t tell her that sometimes love actually gets more complicated when we grow up and toss jobs, politics, kids, religion, friends and selfishness into the mix. I didn’t tell her because some things have to be learned through experience, and some things can’t be learned at all.   

*Author’s Note: In order to respect the privacy of the family I work for, I will not be posting pictures or the names of the children online. “A” refers to a preteen girl, “B” is a two-year-old boy and “C” is a baby boy born in mid-summer 2011.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Settling...Or Maybe Not

Wanderlust should have been my middle name.

Enjoying travel even as a child (1996)
As a baby I insisted on being born three weeks early, clearly ready for a change of scenery after so many months in one place. All growing up I dreamt of far-off locales and, depending on the week and my current mood, I was bound and determined to live either in New York City, Kenya or Italy. In high school I took five years of Spanish classes when only two were required because I just knew that someday I would go somewhere exotic where having a few foreign languages in my back pocket might come in handy. In college I spent a semester in England and loved every second of my time abroad. In fact, I loved it so much that upon my return I worked in the study abroad office and helped other students prepare for their own international trips. After college, not ready to be tied down to anything overly permanent, I spent a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA member and after my term of service I took off for new adventures in Germany.

For the last twenty-four years knowing me has meant that, at some point in the not-so-distant future, you were going to have to say goodbye to me for an extended period of time. Travel isn’t simply something I do; it’s a part of who I am as a human being.

Fulfilling wanderlust in England (2008)
And so, you’ll believe me when I say that no one was more shocked than me when I decided not to extend my 6-month au pair contract. I made the official announcement to my host family this afternoon, but the decision had been quietly, personally made some weeks ago. I will be returning to the United States sometime in mid-February.

It isn’t that I don’t like Germany. In fact, I’m pretty enamored with the country, culture, food, language and people. I am genuinely proud to be of German heritage and would recommend a visit to anyone fool enough to listen.

It isn’t even that I dislike being an au pair. True, it isn’t my dream job and I am yearning for a bit of intellectual stimulation to go with the baby puke on my t-shirt, but my host family is kind and I have my own apartment which is more than most au pairs can say.

In truth, the driving force behind my decision is so terrifying I can’t believe I’m going to post it on the internet for all the world to see…but, I always strive for honesty and so, the truth is this: I want a little permanence in my life. I want a career that means something. I want to live somewhere for more than a year. I want to take my things out of storage and know that if I finally unpack those boxes I won’t have to repack them again in a few months. I want to buy furniture without thinking about how easy it will be to disassemble and move. I want to go out on a date without having to preface it with ‘So, I’m leaving in X amount of time and I don’t know if/when I’m coming back.’

Still exploring (2012)
When these thoughts first started creeping into my head I thought that it was merely homesickness talking, but the more I thought about it the more I began to realize that this is not homesickness in the traditional sense. This is not a longing for my mother or my car. This is deeper, more powerful, and much scarier. This is a yearning for stability in the middle of a life that has been decidedly topsy-turvy for as long as I can remember. And for a woman who prides herself on not knowing what will come next, the very idea of settling down ought to make my palms start to sweat.

It used to.

But today it makes me think of having a dinner party in my very own apartment. In my mind’s eye I can see the beautiful dishes my mother bought me years ago (yes, the ones that I’ve never used because I’m always moving and can’t be bothered to unpack them) sitting out on a kitchen table that I didn’t buy at Ikea. I can see friends sharing work stories over a bottle of wine as I try desperately to cook something edible (this is a daydream, not a fantasy). And, hanging on my wall, are pictures of the places I’ve explored. Italy. England. Mexico. Germany. The list goes on…

And it hits me. Having a home does not mean that I pack up my travels and hide them away as “something I used to do.” It isn’t a white flag of surrender or an admission that I really was wrong/stupid/silly to chase after adventure. It does, however, mean that after two weeks in Kenya I am going to need to come home to water my plants, collect my mail and pay my rent. And, in the end, I think I can be okay with that. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Choosing Joy

My father is a tenacious optimist. The man has an incredible ability to see the silver lining in nearly every situation. If we were trapped in a mine shaft with no food or flashlights my dad would be grateful for the fact that it cannot rain or snow underground. And then, of course, he would sit down to figure a way out of said mine.

Now, no one who knows both me and my dad would argue the fact that I am my father’s daughter. We are both strong-willed individuals who thrive on a good challenge (the more difficult the better). We work well under pressure, learn quickly, are incapable of good housekeeping and have a penchant for losing track of time. And while there are certainly days when I am less than pleased to share so many traits with my dear old dad, for the most part I am happy to have inherited so much from a man that I deeply respect and admire.

Unfortunately, I did not inherit my dad’s easy optimism. I certainly don’t consider myself to be a pessimist and years of living with my father have given me an extreme distaste for people who complain about their lives instead of fixing them, but I am not by nature a cool-headed hopeful. I have a temper that it’s best to avoid if at all possible (the fuse may be long but when you get to the end there’s dynamite to contend with) and when life is really getting me down I sometimes wallow in self-pity and frustration.

But, if I’ve learned anything from my dad it’s this: optimism gets you a lot further than wallowing. And so, as soon as I realize that I am headed down the path of self-pity, I make a conscious effort to choose joy. Certainly there are times in life when unhappy emotions must rule the day (funerals come to mind), but for the most part, choosing joy has served me much better than allowing myself to get bogged down in misery. I choose to look on the bright side, to weigh my options, to act. I choose to be happy and, most of the time, it works.

While there have been many times in my life where I have made the effort to choose joy, this little exercise has never been put to the test more often than in the last two weeks…

As part of my employment as an au pair I was asked to accompany my employers on a family vacation to Fieberbrunn, Austria. Fieberbrunn is a beautiful little town nestled in the Austrian Alps. It is complete with hiking trails, cows with bells around their necks and the unintelligible Austrian-German dialect that makes it even more impossible for me to effectively communicate than when I am in Germany. We (Host Mom, Host Dad, the three kids and myself) stayed in a small cabin about 5km outside of town.

To be honest, there were many moments where choosing joy was quite easy. I loved the views of the Alps and the rolling green hills made me feel like I had stepped right into The Sound of Music (which also happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies). On the day we took a cable car ride to the top of a mountain and went alpine sliding choosing joy wasn’t even a choice, it was a natural reaction to a fun-filled afternoon. I even enjoyed learning about Austria’s lax safety standards when I was allowed to take the 2-year-old on a roller coaster (albeit a small one) at a little theme park we stopped at. And while I loved learning to play Canasta, it was true joy when I finally won a game!

However, choosing joy was a bit more difficult when I was awakened by flying objects at 6:00am. Since the cabin was so small I shared a room with the two oldest children (an 11-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy) and, in addition to snoring and sleep-talking, they also wake up at the unreasonable hour of six o’clock in the morning. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I value sleep the way most value money. I need eight hours in order to function. Need. And so, when an empty sippy cup was hurled across the room as a wake-up call I cannot say that joy topped my list of emotions.

I was also less than joyful during the 12-hour car ride to and from Austria. Sandwiched in the backseat between the two-year-old and the baby I alternately played the roles of bottle feeder, pacifier finder, referee, toy producer, book reader, storyteller, diaper changer and musician. I also took a beating with a toy truck and got thrown up on.

I certainly didn’t choose joy when I walked to the top of a mountain and threw a mini temper tantrum after my fourth night of no sleep, and optimism was nowhere in sight when I locked myself in the bathroom in order to get five minutes of alone time (for a certified introvert 12 days of together time was killer).

Overall, my time in Austria, while beautiful and interesting was also a true challenge. I think my spirit of optimism failed me about as often as it helped and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t make one very expensive phone call home to my dad (who, of course, told me to look on the bright side).

Maybe this makes me a failure as an optimist. Maybe it simply means I am human. Or maybe, choosing joy and failing is a lesson in humility and patience just as much as choosing joy and succeeding is a lesson in being content. Either way, I think my dad would agree that this was one hell of a test.