Tag Archives: expatriate living

Immersion by Party: In Which I Speak Terrible German, Sing the Beatles and Try Schnaps

 

 

*This is a random stock photo: no lederhosen were present at the actual party!

An innocuous slip of paper in my mailbox began it all. The American translation was this:

  • We’re having a party, so don’t complain if it’s too loud, because we just warned you.
  • We will be grilling, so don’t turn us in to the police if you see the smoke–it’s legal.
  • Bring meat. Lots of meat.
  • Preferably wrapped in bacon.
  • Bring a salad.
  • Preferably wrapped in meat.
  • We will have more drinks available than the Geträngtmarkt.
  • RSVP two days ago.

I’d like to say my RSVP was late because I was busy working. I WAS busy, but the truth is that the invitation sat on my fireplace mantle for several days. I would read it whenever I passed by.

A party.

Not on my street, but in my neighborhood.

With Germans (well…yeah…I live in Germany, this makes sense).

I don’t know any of them.

I sound like a 3 year-old when I speak German. (Yes, me like wine red, please?)

Then I told my kids a story at dinner one night: it was my first day of high school. I was painfully shy. I decided to reinvent myself. So, I introduced myself to the first person I saw during the lunch-break. The poor soul happened to be Mavis, who remains one of my very best friends to this day.

As soon as I told that story, I knew I had to go to the party. I mean, if I was forcing encouraging my kids, who’ve had very little exposure to public school AT ALL, to go to GERMAN school, then I could certainly wrap some veggies in meat and saunter down the block to meet the neighbors.

Besides, I could always leave after a couple of hours.

I filled out the RSVP, wrote a nice card and paid my youngest five bucks to deliver it.

The invitation said to arrive after 18:00. I was there by 19:30.

I wasn’t the first one there, nor was I the last, as people slowly trickled in throughout the night.

You can imagine how awkward it was at first–I’m terrible at small talk, in any language. But the hostess was gracious and got me oriented, while some of the neighbors invited me to sit with them.

There seems to be a set of standard questions, probably issued by the Ausländerbehörde, for Germans to ask before getting to know anyone from the US.

After it’s established where I live (they want to know EXACTLY the house and number and then they tell me the history of my house), the conversation then goes like this: 

“Do you know other Americans in our town?”

“No,” I reply.

“We have a large community of Americans here. We have an American family renting our duplex.”

“Oh…okay…”

“I’ll give you their number.”

“Uhh….”

“Where do you shop?”

“I like PennyMarkt.”

“Don’t you shop at the PX?”

“Not really.”

“Not at Katterbach?”

“No. I go to    [INSERT ANY GERMAN STORE HERE]   .

“Oh.”

Having lived in this area for a while, where the US families come and go like migrating birds, I can understand why Germans would want to connect Americans to each other, and not necessarily to themselves. It’s hard to say goodbye. And while three years SEEMS like a long time if you have a baby or you’re in prison, it’s slips by before you know it when you have a good friend. And it’s been said that if you make friends with a German, then you have a friend for life.

But once they find out that:

A) I have a job with a German company

B) My kids will go to German school

C) I want to live here forever

D) I NEED to become fluent in German

…the conversation changes.

Within an hour, I was asked to use ‘du.’

I listened.

A lot.

But I also spoke some. It was easiest during one-on-one conversation.

“What do you like to cook?”

“I like to grill chicken.”

“Do you bake?”

“No my daughter likes to bake.”

etc.

But sitting at a beer table with several very fränkische people was like the UltraMarathon of my linguistic abilities.

Occasionally, someone would slip up and speak ENGLISH, upon which, someone else would say, “Don’t speak English–she needs to learn German!”

I took that as a compliment.

The night went on. More food was eaten, coffee and cake were served, the stars came out and more wine was poured.

I spoke more.

I EVEN had a conversation about CrossFit! Trying to explain why it is NOT ‘bodybuilding.’ I talked about my training and my marathons and they wanted to know exactly how many kilometers I run daily/weekly/monthly and whether I belonged to a running ‘club’ or not.

Then the schnapps came out, and we were inexplicably singing ‘Yellow Submarine’ and other songs in English (with lyrics provided by someone’s smart phone).

I did learn a few valuable lessons:

  1. The things that take courage are often the most rewarding experiences
  2. ASK questions if you don’t know something (like, which Metzgerei is best)
  3. Friendships are an investment–what you put in is what you will get out, but use caution because not every scheme is solid
  4. A glass of wine improves your German
  5. Schnapps does NOT

The day after the party, I went to retrieve my salad bowl, which I’d forgotten in my late-night exit. (I ended up staying at the party MUCH longer than anticipated). The hostess said it had been brave of me to come to the party, and that we should get together more often.

I can hardly explain how good I feel about the whole thing. How much better life is, because I did something that was hard. How great it feels when you have friends.

How a simple piece of paper shaped the course of my life.

Someday, I’ll laugh with my friends about how weird I sounded all those years ago.

Someday, I’ll have a barbecue for my neighbors.

And I’ll invite the Americans renting my duplex.

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Capturing the Beast: No More Living with Regrets

Selfie during an early-morning run in the old landscape.

Selfie during an early-morning run in the old landscape.

My landlady, like the very good German she is, knew exactly what to do when tears began streaming down my cheeks: she toughened up–distracted me by taking me outside to help throw junk into the dumpster.

“Hear that?” she said, as a bottle crashed and broke along the inside, “There is still space, right there.”

So, we aimed our bottles for that space, heaving them over the heavy door, and listening to them crash into a hundred pieces. I don’t know why, but breaking something is usually therapeutic–especially if you don’t have to clean it up afterwards.

I told her in my broken German that she was the best landlord and this was the most beautiful house in the country. She hugged me–a first in eight years–patted me on the shoulders (which were hunched down to her 5 foot-frame) and she gave me the best compliment: Du bist eine gute Frau.

I think she had known for a while that something wasn’t quite right in my life. That normally a woman and her children are not the ones to move an entire household. Normally they have a husband working alongside. His absence and the relatively short timeframe to vacate, were probably signals to her of something beneath the surface.

Germans are nothing if not perceptive.

She was extremely pleased to hear that I was going to try to find a job–but she was over the moon to hear about German school for my kids. She’d always been concerned about their ‘alternative’ education (illegal for Germans), so I think this gave her some comfort.

We were not ideal tenants.

For three years I was so ill, I could hardly get out of bed some mornings, let alone clean my house to German standards. It was a huge house, a blessing with those four energetic kids running around, but something I wasn’t equipped to take care of. By the time I got better and found my energy again, the house was overwhelming.

Walking through the empty place, seeing the pockmarked walls, scuffed floors and being chased by rabid dust bunnies, I had many regrets. I saw ghosts of joyous times, but I also saw opportunities wasted.

I do regret not ‘toughening up’ and plunging into the community.

And that’s the thing about opportunities–they might fall into your path, but you still have to take hold of them. If you don’t, you’ll walk past, and they will vaporize.

I now have the chance to do things right. I have a second chance–more opportunities for a rich, full life. And I’m not talking money. Money is great for paying bills, but you don’t need much of it to be truly rich.

I want a life that is rich with friendships, laughter, joy, peace and adventure. I want a life that engages my mind and creativity. I want an active life, not busy with crap I don’t want to do—but active, alive.

I want these things for my kids.

I see the opportunity in front of me. But she is a big beast. There are many reasons to tiptoe past. To let her sleep. To allow myself to wander into a haze of obscurity.

But I’m not that kind of person anymore. I’ll poke the bitch with a stick. Wake her up, face her enormous breadth and tame her. Make her mine.

Opportunity is intimidating, but it is worth the struggle to take it. To face the challenge. To not back down.

To be honest, I’m frightened at the prospect. But the alternative is to continue on blindly, not taking chances, to feel less than alive.

That’s not an option.

This is one opportunity I’m going to take.

God help me.

No more living with regrets.