Thursday, March 1, 2012

Better Late Than Never (or The Obligatory Last Post)

It's been nearly two weeks since I left Germany and returned to good old Minnesota. My jet lag is long gone, I have (almost) stopped inserting random German words into my sentences and my mom no longer follows me around giving me random hugs and telling me how much she missed me. I've had the chance to drive my car, go to Target and have coffee with friends.

I am home.

Home. It's a good word, filled with comfort, love, lots of food and even more laughter. And while this post by no means signals the end of my travels, it does herald the end of this blog. The stories I have written here have been good, bad and, in some instances, ugly. But they are mine and I am proud of them. Thank you to those of you who have followed me on all of the ups and downs, offering kind words, sage advice and (when necessary) a good kick in the pants. I couldn't have done it without you.

Until the next adventure,

Christina

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Home...Almost

Note to self for future reference:

2 trains + 1 hotel + 1 shuttle + 3 flights + 150 pounds of luggage + extreme jet lag = Recipe for disaster

In all fairness, my journey back to America started out quite smoothly. After a tearful goodbye to the family I worked for (have I mentioned that I am REALLY going to miss those kids?), I caught the train to Hamburg on Friday night. Once in Hamburg I hauled my bags across the street to the metro station where I took a 25 minute tram ride to the station closest to my hotel. A nice man even helped me get my luggage down the three flights of stairs separating me from the street (no elevators!). I then walked 2 blocks to my hotel and, around 9:30pm, checked in. I ordered room service and was even treated to complimentary ice cream before settling in for a short 4.5 hours of sleep before waking up at 4:00am to head to the airport.

Now, I’ll admit, I was nervous about my luggage. I knew it was heavy—heck, I literally have blisters from dragging it around Hamburg—but I wasn’t exactly sure how heavy. I had weighed it back at my apartment and knew it was right on the edge of the allowed limit and I prayed I wouldn’t rack up a fortune in fines when I placed my bags on the scale. The first suitcase I weighed was overweight by 2 kilos. However, the second one was slightly underweight and the very kind American Airlines lady let it slide. J

My first flight (to London) went very well. I was even able to navigate the monstrosity that is Heathrow Airport with relative ease and on our descent I spotted Big Ben (those of you who have been around since my adventures studying abroad will remember my obsession with this particular monument), which reminded me all over again how much I adore that city. Unfortunately, the universe must have thought I needed a little more time to rekindle my love affair with London because my flight to Chicago was delayed. For 5 hours.

Of course, a five hour delay plus a nine-hour flight meant I wasn’t getting in to Chicago until after 6pm on Saturday (which felt like 1am on Sunday to me—hello 24 hours without sleep, my name is Christina). By the time I cleared customs every flight going to Minneapolis was either gone or sold out. Every. Single. One.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I ended up spending my first night back in America in a hotel room in the Windy City.

Instead of a happy reunion with my family I am alone in Chicago, fighting sleep in an effort to reacquaint my poor body with Central Standard Time. And, I have to admit, the situation is not ideal. But, in spite of everything, I can’t call it a total loss. After all, when the customs agent stamped my passport and said “Welcome Home,” those 2 little words I’ve been waiting and waiting to hear, something like joy tap-danced in my chest. It’s good to be home… almost

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Baby Love

On my second to last night in Germany it will surprise no one to learn that I am both incredibly happy and a wee bit sad. I am thrilled to be going to my family and friends, to a language that doesn’t trip me up every time I want to use a preposition, to the potential for a legitimate “big-girl” job, to a place that feels like home. But, on the flip side, I will miss Germany very much. In the last six months I have grown very fond of the bakeries, the bread, the trains, cobblestone streets and, of course, the family that I work for. I will miss the children most especially and, after dedicating half a year of my life to their care, it’s difficult to realize that I will no longer being seeing them every day.

So, in honor of the three children who I have come to truly adore, I would like to post a list entitled “10 Things I Learned as an Au Pair.” It’s a little funny, a little serious and a lot true.

1. Baby laughter can make even the worst day sunnier.

2. “No (Nein)” and “Mine (Mein)” are a two-year-old’s favorite words in any country and any language.

3. It’s a lot harder to explain the English language than it is to speak it.

4. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” can stop a flood of tears in an instant.

5. There is nothing that will melt your heart like having a baby fall asleep in your arms.

6. Kids can bite really hard considering how small they are.

7. Being silly is an important part of life.

8. It really is possible to read a book so many times that you memorize it—even in a foreign language! (“Huhuhu!” weint der kleine Hase, “Mein Ball ist weg, mein schoner bunter Ball.” … and so on and so forth)

9. Dance parties in the living room are good for the soul

10. Patience really is a virtue. Really. It is.

It may not be a list worthy of Letterman, but it ranks pretty high in my book...

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Last Saturday

One week from this very moment I will be landing in Chicago, and even though I will have to endure yet another flight before finally making it back to the freezing wilds of Minnesota, I will effectively be home. And, after half a year away, home is exactly where I want to be. Of course, it’s never as simple as walking onto an airplane, plugging in your iPod and enjoying the ride. First, there is the packing.  

Now, I generally consider myself to be a pretty good packer. I’m quick (it took me less than 3 hours to pack for 6 months in Germany), I’m efficient (I am a hardcore list-maker so once I’ve decided what I’m bringing all I have to do is throw it in the suitcase and check it off) and I’m compact (I regularly travel with little more than a small backpack in tow). Additionally, I am not by nature a “shoe person,” which I understand is a weakness for many women, and since shoes are heavy and take up a lot of space, I see lack of a footwear fetish as an extreme advantage in the packing realm.

A clear winter day in Hamburg
I am not, however, a very good re-packer. In fact, I am a terrible re-packer. At the end of a trip I will wait until the very last minute to frantically toss my unfolded clothes back into my suitcase, shoehorn any souvenirs into the open spaces and then squish the ends together and pray that the whole thing zips. Of course, this mad dash to the finish inevitably ends with me leaving something behind when I go. I’ve left sunglasses in Texas, mittens in Paris, my favorite sweatshirt in London and half of a bathing suit in the Turks and Caicos Islands. By now I pretty much expect to come home missing something I never intended to get rid of.

And yes, the rational side of me realizes that if I just thought things through a little more and packed my bag the night before instead of the morning of my departure, I could avoid the lunacy. Yet, here I am, twenty-four years old and a fairly seasoned traveler and I am doing everything in my power to avoid repacking the things I carted with me to Germany. To make matters worse, when I was cleaning my apartment yesterday I also came to the horrifying conclusion that I have accumulated an awful lot of crap in the last six months and shoving it into two suitcases is going to require some serious finesse and one of Mary Poppins’ magic carpet bags.

Hamburg Rathaus (Town Hall)
So, on my last Saturday in Germany, when I ought to have been organizing my life and hauling my suitcases down from the rafters, I ignored the intelligent plan of action and took the train into Hamburg one last time. I window shopped, bought myself ice cream even though it was freezing cold outside and said a few nostalgic goodbyes to the people and places that have become so familiar in the last six months. I even happened upon an English bookstore and bought a 1,300-page novel, which I am hoping will keep me occupied as I traverse an ocean and seven time zones next week.

It was a good day, a happy day, and as I boarded the train back to Stade I was glad I had decided to avoid the disaster zone that has become my apartment for a few hours. Of course, no happy day in my life is complete without a crazy story and this was no exception…

 As soon as I got on the train I knew it was going to be a long ride. The cars were full to bursting and so I ended up standing. As more and more people squeezed their way on I was pushed further and further to the back of the car until I was standing with my back against the wall. In front of me was an old woman with a black ski cap who kept yelling at anyone who tried to get on the train (and while I appreciated the sentiment, she was making quite a fuss). Next to me was a man and his dog (it is quite common for people to bring their dogs on buses, trains and subways here). Somehow, in the midst of the chaos and the yelling the dog ended up sitting between my feet. Now, I like dogs and this one was cute and seemed well-behaved so I didn’t think much of it… until he started licking my pants (Remember that ice cream I mentioned earlier? I may have spilled some of it on my jeans). So now I am squished between dozens of strangers with a strange dog licking my pants, scrambling to find something to hang on to as the train zips out of the city. And all I can think is that this utterly bizarre experience is the perfect end to my last Saturday in a country that has made me laugh and cry and dance and scream…

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Good Morning. Welcome to Travel Hell.

Amsterdam


“Good morning ladies and gentlemen. We have a very big problem. Please evacuate the train. Immediately.”

On my “List of Ways I Like to be Awakened in Foreign Countries” the previous phrase is certainly not at the top. In fact, it it’s on another list entirely, a list entitled, “Things I Never Want to Hear at 7am.” However, when the loud speaker crackled to life on Saturday morning and I was forced to leap from my bed (it was a night train so, yes, I actually had a bed), grab my belongings and wait in the cold for over half an hour with a train full of people somewhere in the German countryside, I decided to try to make the most of it. After all, I like a little adventure as much as the next person…


Three trains and four hours later as I bounced along in an overcrowded train with my luggage at my feet (yep, I was standing, because when you put a train full of people on another train that is already full of people, there tend not to be any seats left), my spirit of adventure began to decline rapidly. I hadn’t brushed my teeth in ages, I hadn’t slept well the previous night and I was so confused as to my current geographic location that I didn’t even know if I was in Germany or the Netherlands.

By the time I reached Amsterdam, my destination for one last weekend trip before returning to the USA in a few weeks, I was ready for a shower and a change of clothes. Unfortunately, my room at the hostel was not ready and, according to the look the receptionist gave me, it wasn’t going to be ready any time soon and I was a fool for asking. Instead of a refreshing shower, I was directed to a closet-sized bathroom down the hall.

Deciding to make the best of a less than ideal situation, I changed my clothes, brushed my teeth, pulled my hair into a terribly attractive ponytail, tossed my backpack in the “luggage room” (please read, closet underneath a staircase) and set out to explore the city they call The Venice of the North, all the while thinking, “Amsterdam, you’d better be worth it.”

And, as corny and clich├ęd as it sounds—it was worth it. I was instantly charmed. After all, who wouldn’t fall in love with a city that boasts more canals than Venice, more bikes than people and the largest public library in Europe?

I honestly can’t say which sight was my favorite. My tour of the Anne Frank House definitely tops the list (in spite of the fact that I knew Anne Frank didn’t survive her time in Auschwitz I kept hoping for a happy ending and was struck all over again when I read of her death). I also loved the Van Gogh Museum, the Flower Market, exploring the Jordaan neighborhood and shopping to my heart’s content in the Nine Streets area. The canals and bridges were beautiful in spite of the cloudy winter weather and even the cold, crisp air seemed more like an exhilaration than a nuisance. By the time I left on Monday morning I had decided that if I ever win the lottery and have no need for a real job, I will spend a summer writing wonderful stories and riding my bike in Amsterdam.

Now, maybe my love of the city, in spite of all the pains it took me to get there, has something to do with the fact that this was my last trip within Europe before going back to the USA… and since it may be many years before I am able to return to this continent, Amsterdam became somewhat of a final adventure.

I swear I'm smiling under all those layers
After years of European travels I am heading home to “settle down” (though, let’s be honest, I do not settle) and while I still plan to travel as much as I possibly can, I am thinking there are other continents and countries which I will choose to explore before I make it back here. And I am okay with that because it’s time for a new string of adventures in a new land. But, that being said, Europe was my first international experience and my first travel love. It will always have a special place in my wandering heart. And the next time I see someone riding a black bicycle down the street, I will think of Amsterdam and smile.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sometimes I Rock, Sometimes I Roll

Author's Note: The reading pleasure of this post will be greatly enhanced if you play this song in the background.


There are moments in life when you’ve just got to roll with the punches. You duck and weave in an attempt to avoid as many blows as possible, and when you do get hit (because you will get hit), you clench your jaw and work through the pain.

There are also moments in life when you get to be Rocky reaching the top of that staircase. You might not actually be on top of the world, but it sure as hell feels like it. Today I was blessed with one of those Rocky-inspired, mountain top moments, and, to be frank, it was awesome…

See, for the last several weeks I have been internally debating about where to go for my last trip before leaving Germany. I had considered Cologne, Dresden, Brussels, Prague and Amsterdam (so many choices, so little time!). In the end, due to rave reviews and the fact that the kids I take care of are half Dutch, I decided to check out Amsterdam before heading back to the United States.

My host mom graciously gave me next Monday off and so I headed down to the train station to book my tickets for a long weekend in the Netherlands. I told the lady behind the counter the dates I wanted and the times I preferred, bought my tickets and went on my merry way, feeling quite proud of myself… until I got back to my apartment and realized I had accidentally gotten the date wrong on one of my tickets. Ugh.

So, this morning I walked back to the train station to sort the mess out-- in German, no less. Of course, I knew I could have asked any one of the fluent German speakers I live with to help me out, but I wanted to do it by myself (a phrase that has been my mantra since I insisted on putting on my own shoes and jacket at two years old… just ask my mother how that one turned out). With visions of exorbitant prices dancing in my head, I walked up to the counter and explained what had happened.

And then, a miracle happened… the man behind the counter understood everything I was saying and I understood him, too. He fixed my ticket right there on the spot and I even got a small refund as the train on which I actually wanted to travel had a sale price attached to it. Less than five minutes after walking up to the counter I was out the door with a new ticket in hand. And as I walked through town to my next stop, the post office, I remembered one of my first German conversations way back in August when I had fumbled my way through buying an international postcard stamp. I smiled to myself and couldn’t help but think, “Piece of cake.”

And that, my friends, is how you rock it Rocky-style.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

It's All a Bit Foreign...

I awoke on Saturday morning and, for the first time since mid-November, I had no plans whatsoever. I was not meeting with friends, going out of town or working. It was a beautiful blue-sky day and the world was at my fingertips. I could have done anything I wanted. And so, I went to Buxtehude.

Buxtehude's Cathedral
No, “Buxtehude” is not code for some fabulous European adventure that is going to make everyone at home green with envy. It is instead a small town about twenty minutes away from where I live and, as far as I can tell, it is not noteworthy in any way. I pass it on the train every time I go to Hamburg and it looks exactly like every other suburb I go through: brick houses, lots of trees, tiny family-run shops and the occasional cow.

Of course, the logical question is, why then would I choose to visit Buxtehude? Sadly, there isn’t a terribly logical answer. In fact, the sole purpose of my journey was to explore something called Marktkauf. Marktkauf is a huge, warehouse like building right next to the Buxtehude train station. Until Saturday’s exploration I had no idea what they did in said building, but I was constantly seeing people get on the train with bright yellow bags boldly proclaiming “Marktkauf” in John Deere green letters. And, after five months, curiosity got the better of me.

I got off the train in Buxtehude at approximately 11:00am and wandered toward Marktkauf. I could see people streaming inside like ants toward a picnic basket and I rushed up the concrete steps, eager to get my first peek at this thing that had haunted my imagination for 21 weeks. What I saw inside stunned me.

There were people everywhere. People pushing shopping carts. People carrying baskets. People yelling at their children to come back, go away, be quiet, speak louder. People, people, people. And the noise. The talking and laughing was nothing compared to the beeping of the cash registers and the nasal overhead announcements. Each aisle was crammed with stuff. Everything from socks to shampoo to butter could be found inside this veritable Mecca of consumerism. I stood in the doorway, completely stunned, as people and shopping carts moved around me like I was Moses parting the Red Sea.

Slowly, I moved forward, trying to decide where to look first. Electronics? Books? Home goods? Clothes? I literally turned circles trying take it all in, meandering through the crowded aisles like someone awaked abruptly from a deep sleep. And then, somewhere between ladies underwear and sporting goods, it hit me: this was Wal Mart. Okay, so it wasn’t Wal Mart, per se, but the concept was the same. And I, a red-blooded American who has been in more than her fair share of Wal Marts (feel free to judge) was completely and utterly overwhelmed.

After five months of doing all my shopping in tiny shops with narrow aisles and little selection this Wal Mart-like monstrosity was sensory overload. And, the real irony is that just three days previous, when my shopping list had consisted of shampoo, a notebook and bread and I had been forced to walk to three different stores in the pouring rain, I had complained viciously about the lack of convenience stores. I didn’t want to wander across town just to find the one store that sells envelopes and then wander back again to buy milk. I wanted selection, affordability, expediency. I wanted… Wal Mart.

The Farmer's Market in Buxtehude
And yet, standing in the middle of Marktkauf, Wal Mart’s long lost German cousin, it all seemed a little ridiculous. So, ten minutes after walking in, I walked back out. The sky was still blue and the sun was beginning to shine so I wandered down side streets until I came to a church yard where local farmers were selling produce. One stand had apples, another cheese, another still held heaps of oranges. People scurried from one stall to the next in a mad effort to collect what they would need for the week to come.

I found an empty bench behind the stand that was selling carrots and potatoes and sat down to think… I am an American, living in Germany. I am frustrated by the European system and completely overwhelmed by the American one. I have been here 21 weeks and I feel comfortable in Stade. But I miss my family and my home and my life. In five weeks I will be back in America and Germany will become little more than a memory that I replay sometimes when I am feeling nostalgic.

What a strange, strange life I have come to lead… 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Flashes of Light


The two years since my graduation from college have been filled with the types of ups and downs that would make a roller coaster jealous…

 I generally tell people I couldn’t be paid enough to repeat 2010 (a quarter life crisis + a soul-sucking job + being forced to move back home = A recipe for getting your ass handed to you).

Starting 2012 at the Berlin Wall
2011 was significantly improved (AmeriCorps VISTA and a few pretty epic weddings come to mind) but all in all, I still dealt with declining my acceptance to graduate school (again), a difficult move to another country (Hello, Germany, thanks for kicking me in the face) and an existential crisis about growing up (It only took me 24 years to get there...).

So, you’ll understand my reservations about admitting that I have a good feeling about 2012. In fact, a few weeks ago I sent an email to a very dear friend detailing my tentatively hopefully feelings about the upcoming year and as soon as I hit the send button all I could think was, “Way to go, dummy, you probably just jinxed yourself.”

And maybe that is true. Maybe I jinxed myself in some horrible way and I am now destined to spend the rest of the year making up for my overly self-confident attitude. But then again, maybe not…

Because in spite of the rational part of my brain reminding me that in 7 weeks I will be jobless, homeless and virtually penniless, the irrational part of my brain is eternally optimistic, devastatingly hopefully. And it is this irrational part that tells me no New Year’s Eve as epic as the one I just rang in could possibly herald a dud of a year.

See, I spent this New Year’s Eve in Berlin with a bunch of strangers and a few good friends. And when I think about that weekend it all seems like flashes of light…

Flash

Berlin from Above
I am tired of waiting for my jet-lagged friends to wake up (those flights from the States are killer) and so I leave the hotel and set out into Berlin on my own. I love this city in a way I love few places and even though I haven’t spent a lot of time here I already know it well. I don’t even bother with a map, instead I just hop on the subway and go.

I love the freedom of being alone in a huge place that is on the brink of something new. I end up in East Berlin, studying the old Soviet buildings. It starts to snow, crisp and white. I had forgotten that I love snow. I take off my hat, tilt my face upwards and enjoy the white.

Flash

I am standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, arguably the most recognizable monument in Berlin, and I am singing “I Will Survive.” It is only 2 o’clock in the afternoon but the entire street is filled with people. Live music blasts from the stage and street vendors sell everything from bratwurst to hard alcohol (this is Germany after all). Suddenly, one of my friends grabs my arm and we’re off, dancing through the crowd. As we turn I catch the eye of a middle-aged German man. He is laughing. At me. I think of that Angela Monet quote that goes something like this: Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn’t hear the music. And I dance some more.

Flash

I am standing in a crowded park in Berlin. It is almost midnight on New Year’s Eve. Behind me is the German couple (friends of a friend) who have opened their home to us. They cooked us dinner, poured us drinks and invited us to accompany them to watch the fireworks—it doesn’t matter that everyone else at the party is a family member or a close friend. For tonight, we fit the bill, too.

Lifelong friends on an epic Berlin night
Next to me is a woman I have known since childhood. Our grandmothers are friends, our mothers are friends and we are friends, too. I have celebrated most of my New Year’s Eves with her at my side (and a lot of Thanksgivings and family vacations, as well), and it means more to me than I could have imagined that she is with me on this night. She passes me sparkling wine and I take a drink, straight from the bottle. I am more than a little buzzed and the fireworks that are being shot off all around us make me laugh.

Suddenly, I hear the countdown, in German of course. The fireworks blaze so hot I can feel their heat and smell the sulfur everywhere. The sky is thick with their smoke. Another bottle is passed to me and I drink again. I glance down the hill and I can see the whole city. “That’s Berlin, baby,” I think to myself.

Everyone has taken to the streets to celebrate this passage of time and for a moment it feels like the entire world is laughing. The countdown ends and everyone is kissing, screaming, crying, singing, drinking. It is joy. Sheer, naked, human joy.

Flash

It is two o’clock in the morning and I am standing in a Berlin apartment teaching Germans to line dance while "Cotton Eye Joe" blasts through the speakers (courtesy of YouTube, of course). My fellow Americans and I try very hard to convey the importance of this cultural gem to our friends from across the ocean but I am quite certain the point is not getting across as clearly as we would like. It doesn’t matter though because, in the end, we all stumble into the middle of the living room when someone turns on Culture Beat’s “Mr. Vain.”

“I know what I want and I want it now!” we all sing in varying accents. We dance around the sofa and down the hall as, outside, fireworks still boom loud enough to shake the window panes… or maybe that’s us. Who can tell anymore?

Flash