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. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

War Stories

After spending a week exploring Germany I arrived in Metz, France at 6:15am on a Friday morning. It was pitch black and pouring rain, and I was carrying a backpack that, with my newly acquired souvenirs jammed into every free pouch, had increased to the point of unruliness. My very dear friend, Claire, who teaches English in a small town outside of Metz couldn’t meet me until 1:00pm, and so I had seven hours to kill… and I did not want to do it with an overweight elephant on my back.

After nearly an hour of running around the train station I had established two things: No one in the entire place spoke English or German, and there did not seem to be any lockers available to rent (so, if you want to get technical, I had established one thing and deduced another, but who wants to be technical at 7:00am after having spent the night attempting to sleep in a six-person train berth the size of a shoebox?).

Not knowing what else to do, I bought a muffin and sat down to think. And, low and behold, from my bench I could see a sign for a hotel and I had the vague notion that hotels sometimes store luggage for a small fee. Rejuvenated, I gathered my things and set off through the rain.

Three hotels later I had established one more thing: French hotels do not store luggage.

The last receptionist, who spoke more English than the rest, suggested that I try the local tobacco shop. I was fairly certain this was some sort of weird English-French miscommunication, but I was desperate and so I wandered into the small shop that smelled like foreign cigars. A perfectly coiffed French woman stood behind the counter, taking in my rain-soaked, sleep-deprived appearance in the way only someone who has never ventured outside without mascara and high heels can do.

We quickly established the fact that this woman did not speak English or German and, quite frankly, did not care to attempt anything other than French. And so, desperate to get rid of the anchor-like luggage that was cutting into my shoulders with every breath, I reverted to the international language of pantomime.

“I have a VERY big bag,” I said slowly, gesturing to the pack on my back. “And I want to leave it here.” I pointed behind the counter with a pathetic look on my face that I hoped wouldn’t be mistaken for constipation.

For a split second the French woman didn’t move. She just stared disdainfully. But then, when I was about to turn and go, she motioned for me to come around the counter where she stapled a piece of paper to my bag and made me pay 10 Euros. I left the tobacco shop sans luggage (and a little bit of dignity).

French Dinner at Claire's French Apartment
When Claire finally arrived at one o’clock and helped me to reclaim my baggage (and cart it back to her apartment) I was honestly able to tell her that I had never been happier to see her in my life… and considering the fact that she and I have been friends for more than a decade, that’s really saying something.

But it was true. Living life in a foreign country had taken more of a toll on me that I had expected or realized and I was in desperate need of an old friend. And so, that night over dinner and the next day over coffee with another American friend also living in France, we swapped war stories…

Claire told me how she lost it when she discovered that the “laundry mat” where she could wash her clothes was in fact a single washing machine outside of a gas station. Bre (our other American friend) shared a story about being berated in the middle of a French grocery store for buying lettuce incorrectly. I let them in on the fact that I can never again visit a certain bakery in town after making a terrible fool of myself trying to buy bread.

It is one thing to visit a foreign country and play tourist for a few days, pointing at menu items and smiling with lots of teeth. It is another thing entirely to attempt to build a life in a place where you cannot grocery shop without exerting more mental energy that most college freshman do on their final exams. You make desperate attempts to fit in, all the while terrified that someone will call you out on your foreignness. You spend every day on a see-saw of ups and downs: Today I successfully bought stamps but when I went to the bank the teller treated me like I was five (and I STILL didn’t understand). Did I have a good day or not? I really can’t tell.

These are our battles. These are our war stories.

Talking them over does not change the fact that tomorrow we have to get up, don our armor, and face it all again. But it does make life seem a little less lonely, a little less overwhelming. And when I am able to laugh hysterically over something that made me cry only a few days earlier, I feel that I have made progress. I feel like, in the end, things might just end up in my favor.

 Of course, when Claire and I headed back to her apartment after a day of what seemed a bit like group therapy for those afflicted with Wanderlust, only to discover that her apartment keys were missing, my joyful feelings all but vanished. Desperate, we dumped the contents of her purse onto the sidewalk, digging through the now empty bag to no avail. We retraced our steps and even called Bre. Nothing.

Sitting down on the cement, I sent a silent, desperate prayer Heavenward. Dear God, please let us find those keys. Neither one of us is capable of dealing with a French locksmith right now. Please, God, I am begging you.

Not five seconds after I had completed my prayer, Claire looked in her purse again and there, sitting in a zippered pouch we had both checked repeatedly, sat two shiny silver keys. A little miracle for two Americans who were already sporting plenty of battle scars. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Journey

I love a lot of things in life: Skittles, really hot showers, snail mail, sweatpants on Saturday mornings, books you can get lost in… and the list goes on and on. In fact, my brother regularly teases me about the way I throw the L-word around, insisting that I love everything from puppies to popcorn (Case in point: I actually do love both of those things). I like to think my love of the world comes from an innate sense of joyfulness, but maybe I just don’t have very discerning tastes. Either way, I am in love with life and most things in it.

That being said, there are some things I Love in a soul-deep, capital L sort of way. Travel is one of those things. I love the big things about travel: seeing new sights and exploring an unfamiliar culture. But I also love the little things: smelling the air on the other side of the world, tasting food you could never get at home, feeling new ground underfoot. I love it all… and I love what it teaches me about myself. Indeed, travel is probably the best teacher I’ve ever had. She can be brutal, but if you survive the lesson the reward is the equivalent to the Ph.D in living life.

At 24-years-old I have no illusions that I have earned this coveted Ph.D, but after my solo journey through Germany I like to think I’ve at least passed freshman finals. And, if life really was a school and Travel really was my teacher, and this really was the end of my freshman year, this is the final exam I would have turned in:

What My Journey Taught Me

The Unique Streets of Berlin
I am better than I think I am.
Upon arriving in Berlin on Saturday morning I realized that I had no idea how to get to my hostel. Sure, I had an address and a few brief directions printed from the internet, but nothing concrete enough to make me feel good about the situation. If I had been traveling with a friend I would have turned to her and we would have made a decision together because when you’ve just arrived in a foreign city two heads really are better than one.

As it were, I was alone and since I really didn’t care to spend the night in the train station, I was forced to use my single brain and poor German to buy a metro pass, ask for directions and read all of the street signs. An hour later I arrived at my hostel with such a sense of triumph that the Rocky theme song played in my head as I lugged my backpack up the narrow staircase to my room.

The Berlin Wall
History really does exist outside of textbooks.
Unlike the Germans, Americans have no idea what it feels like to live with something as horrific as the Holocaust on our collective conscience. While no one would argue the fact that the U.S.A. has done some pretty terrible things throughout its history, when someone thinks of my country I can pretty much guarantee that the genocide of millions of Jews is not the first thing that comes to mind. Unfortunately for the Germans, the happenings of WWII might be the only thing many people know about their country. This “guilty conscience” colors everything the Germans do, and as such you will not see many overt displays of nationalism even now, decades later.

Berlin is the epicenter of Germany’s heartache and in some ways the entire city seems to be a memorial, an apology of sorts. There are tributes to the people who were killed by the Nazi regime standing next to memorials for those who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall at the height of the Cold War. There are distinct lines in the city where East meets West, and hundreds of bombed-out buildings still stand empty, silent witnesses to a century of tragedy.

And yet, Berlin is not a dead city. It is not even a sad city. It is a triumphant city, a wary city, a city worth watching. There are artists and musicians living in old Soviet-era apartments because they are cheap enough to afford on a painter’s salary. There are up and coming night clubs and music halls where bomb shelters used to be. There are young people who think it is okay to move forward with hope even in a city filled with weighty history.

Checkpoint Charlie
Sometimes it is okay to rely on the kindness of strangers.
On Sunday I took an all-day history tour through the back streets of East Berlin and it was a fabulous way to get acquainted with what might be my new favorite city on the planet (Shhh, don’t tell London). My guide for this tour was a young American woman who is currently earning her master’s degree at a university in Berlin. We got along very well all day and so, when the tour was over and she invited me to her apartment to hang out with her friends I could have said no, but I didn’t.

I relied on her willingness to show another young American a side of Berlin most people don’t see, and I am thankful for the fact that she offered, as well as the fact that I was brave enough to say yes. I spent Sunday night on a rooftop in East Berlin, enjoying the sunset and talking about expat life in Germany. I ate ice cream, met a few new people and enjoyed an unexpected moment of friendship on my solo journey.

Having class counts for something.
After a 7-hour train ride south, I arrived in Munich on Monday afternoon. Munich is completely different than Berlin, and I loved it both because of and in spite of this fact. Munich, the capital of Bavaria (the largest state in Germany), is as happy a city as one could hope to find. If you ever want a lesson in joyfulness, I would start there.

After a long day wandering the city, I headed back to my hostel where I sat in a common area to do some journaling. After about five minutes an Australian came up to me and asked expectantly if I spoke English because he needed some help. I said yes, expecting a question of some sort, but instead he introduced himself, sat down next to me and, 2 hours later we had talked about travel, books, history and where we were off to next. As I was turning to leave I remembered that he had meant to ask me something, but when I inquired as to what he had originally wanted, all he would say was, “It was kind of a jerky guy question and it’s clear that you’ve got class so I can’t ask you.” He even had the good grace to look sheepish.

I still have no idea what he wanted, but I like to think if it had been something along the lines of “Where can I get laid tonight?” or “Is there a crack house nearby?” our classy conversation made him think twice. Maybe he even went upstairs to his room and called his mother just to say hello

It is okay to be continually awed by beauty.
My last two days in southern Germany I took two day trips: one along the Romantic Road and one to the famous Neuschwanstein Castle (which Walt Disney used as the model for Cinderella’s castle). While both trips were amazing, it is the castle tour that keeps springing to mind when I recall my trip. Not only was the weather perfect (blue skies and sunny), but I got to take my first foray into the Alps and see a sight I had been dreaming of visiting for years. And I wasn’t disappointed. The castle was glorious and no matter how many times I caught a glimpse of it, I was always awed.

I could have looked at the castle, taken a few pictures of the view from the mountain and been on my merry way, but instead I spent the entire day in the Alps, hiking around and taking it all in. I was thrilled every time I turned a corner. I spent the day in childlike wonderment, a feeling that was all the more precious because I am no longer a child.

This, of course, is only a small foray into all that I learned on the German leg of my journey, but those were the most important lessons and so those are the lessons I would tell my teacher about. I like to think that I would have gotten an ‘A.’

And for those of you who are wondering what happened after I left Germany and crossed the border to France, don’t worry… it’s a two-part assignment  J