Tag Archives: Germany

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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Don’t Let Failure Win

 

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Sometimes life seems to be one steady stream of dropping the bar.

  • The dog eats the vacuum cleaner.
  • The side-view mirror randomly falls off your car.
  • Your toenails are the color of rotten robin’s eggs.
  • You don’t front squat as much as you would’ve liked.

But the fact is: this is life.

I don’t think life has ever been perfect for anybody.

While the past is etched in stone, it doesn’t mean you have to tie yourself to it.

But you should look at it from time to time.

Read it. Learn from it. And move on. 

I’ve been SO wrong about SO many things; and I can either let mistakes sideline me, or I can write a better game plan and jump back in.

I am working towards a goal–a dream.

And anyone who’s actually ever lived a dream knows it comes with a shit ton of hard work.

I want to stay in Germany. To live here. To work here. To become fluent in the language and be part of the community. But it’s intimidating. It’s a lot of paperwork. It’s a lot of mental work. I have fears and misconceptions to arm wrestle.

This week, I stepped foot into a German school, something entirely alien to a homeschooling mom (homeschooling is illegal here for Germans–illegal, as in: people go to jail rather than send their kids to school). So, German schools must be like prisons, right?

Not so much. At least, not in our little town.

Everyone was friendly. The staff seemed happy–laughing, smiling, joking. They brought me cake and coffee. They made me, this strange American former homeschool mom with four *gasp* kids, feel welcomed.

The Principal kept shaking his head and blowing air through pursed lips while he put our information into the computer.

“I’m giving you a challenge, aren’t I?” I asked, between mouthfuls of cake.

“Yes, yes. This is a challenge, but it will be more of a challenge for your children.”

“They’re up for it,” I replied.

And they are. I know they are–even if they don’t think they are. Moms, like great coaches, know these things.

Life is difficult.

But I truly believe that those horrible, difficult times scrawled on the pages of my tear-stained journal have been for my benefit.

I appreciate the millions of good little things better than I ever have in my life: Laughter at the dinner table. Meat on the grill. Lesson plans to prepare. Someone saying, “Hey, I read your blog!” and they don’t roll their eyes.

The hard work, the hard times have incredible value. Why NOT go for the challenge? Because even ‘failures’ help shape us into better people, as long as we don’t quit.

My son told me that I need to re-write my book (I have several manuscripts in various stages) because I’m more ‘vibrant’ now.

Standing hip-deep in this strange circumstance has made me more real, more alive, and so maybe, all of this has made me a better writer. Maybe the fact that I can’t beg, borrow or steal a full-time job means I’ll have more time for writing. Maybe I’ll look back and say, “I’m glad I DIDN’T get that job with Adidas.”

Who knows?

Sometimes desperation inspires greatness.

All people fail.

Some of us fail again and again.

But the key is to never fail the same lesson twice.

Pick up the bar.

Take some weight off, if you have to.

Work your way back up.

It will be intimidating. It will require sweat and perseverance and your hands won’t be quite as smooth as they once were.

But it’s totally worth it.

Just don’t quit.

Because if you quit, then failure wins.

And that shouldn’t be an option for anyone.


The Real Buttercup

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Some days, I don’t want to toughen up.

I just want to be Buttercup.

But single moms can’t afford to be soft.

It was an exhausting week, with monumental occasions and sheer exhaustion culminating in a slight breakdown where I cried in front of the kids, while baking a frozen pizza.

I had an interview Monday in Munich and walked away with a job offer.

I had an interview Tuesday in Nurnberg and walked away with a job offer.

I sold two vehicles, juggling the insane schedule of the vehicle registration & inspection offices, US and German, which were further constrained by US AND German holidays–and all of this business HAD to be completed by May 30th.

I’d never bought or sold a car in my life, and this month, I did both.

But sitting there on the cold kitchen tile, watching through the grimy glass as my comfort-food heated up, I couldn’t help but think about the woman I used to be. She was cheerful (mostly), sweet and soft, blindly ignoring major marital problems so she could keep the happy status quo.

She was quite often miserable and heartbroken, but the facade was there; and she had a sort of Pollyanna gullibility that seems endearing upon reflection.

She was Buttercup.

But that woman has changed a lot; and I find myself wondering if it’s possible to be both tough and soft at the same time.

This is a difficult time, transitioning to a new life, and a million thoughts go through my head: Will I get a life? Will I really be happy again? What will my life look like in five years? Hell, what will it look like next week?

Some days I feel alone. Utterly. Totally. Alone.

My friends and family (who just read that statement) are now saying something like, “YOU are NOT alone–I am here for you!!”

And you are.

But eventually (and rightly so) you fade into the shadows, and step back into your own lives.

And it’s just me again.

Drinking a glass of red wine and writing a blog on a Saturday night.

I suppose the utter alone-ness I’m feeling is simply because I’ve had domineering other-ness for 20 years.

I’d better learn to like myself.

I’ve taken a gamble by trying to carve out a life–a real life–here in Germany. It’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do.

On Thursday, I woke up two hours before my alarm with a stress migraine. I wanted to give up–to lock the door and sleep in my dark basement room and let someone else take care of things for a while.

Then I had one of those fitful sleeps where I dreamed I was in the guest room of my Grandma’s house, where I stayed after my Aunt Kathy died (of cancer…way too early); and Grandma was taking care of my kids while I just slept and slept and slept.

As my alarm chimed, it dawned on me: there WAS no one else to take care of things. And even if I WERE to retreat to Grandma’s spare room, that’s not exactly the life I envision. I have to be tough to make a life for myself.

I need the toughness to deal with bureaucracy. I need the toughness it takes to be humble and ask for help. I need the toughness to weather the emotional storms that unexpectedly drop from the sky like tornadoes.

Buttercup couldn’t handle it.

But the woman she’s becoming…as coach Rob once told me…she gets shit done.

And this is where I am. I am hanging in there; persevering and working for a life of my own. It’s not easy. I don’t like being tough all the time. But maybe someday, when things get settled. When I find my place in this little world. I’ll be able to let my guard down again. Just for a moment. To know that the world isn’t all harsh. That I can trust again. That it’s okay to be happy and not worry about things so much.

Buttercup is still there somewhere. She didn’t die.

She’s just a lot stronger now.

And maybe this new Buttercup was actually there all along.

 

 


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.


Hard Things: Crossfit for a Healthy Perspective

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The softest thing about Crossfit is the floor–and even that feels hard when your body slams into it.

Most people take a cursory glance at Crossfit and think, “Oh! That’s too hard!” It’s the same with marathons. I repeatedly hear, “I could NEVER do that!”

But really, with the right training, anyone can run a marathon; and anyone can Crossfit.

It just requires doing things that are hard:

  • Giving your best effort
  • Not making excuses for a poor effort
  • Dedication to training
  • Showing up consistently
  • Having the humility to start small
  • Having the guts to dream big

Crossfit has made me stronger mentally. I don’t give up quite as easily as I used to, and when I see a challenge, I go for it.

That’s what strength is, after all. It’s envisioning a positive outcome, rather than letting problems suck you under like quicksand. 

Some of my challenges (like registering for the Jungfrau Marathon in the Swiss Alps) are self-imposed, but others are beyond my control. I am facing challenges that in my pre-Crossfit days would have seemed impossible:

  • Getting a job after 20 years of working from home & raising kids
  • Sending my kids to traditional school
  • Sending my kids to traditional school in a different language
  • Becoming fluent in German
  • Figuring out how to stay here, and the subsequent roadblocks, paperwork, assholes, and other things I won’t understand
  • Keeping a healthy perspective, so I have something to give the people who need me
  • Keeping my core strong when I get tired

I can’t say this enough: Crossfit is not about the body, it is about the mind. I KNOW that if I set the bells down, I’m not picking them up again (very easily). So I don’t set them down. Even when they feel heavy.

Challenges don’t feel good, and at times, they can be so big, it’s like standing on the edge of a canyon, only it’s black inside, and you can’t see the next step.

Then someone hands you a headlamp and guides you to the path. You still have to do the work, and you’ll probably fall down a lot along the way. But at least you’re headed in the right direction. You didn’t give up and plummet into the chasm.

There is life to be lived and experienced: and Crossfit gives you the strength to face anything. Maybe you won’t be able to lift your own refrigerator (at first) but you will be able to do things that are hard, like putting a stop to an unhealthy relationship; like making a foreign country your home; like moving into a smaller house and painting the basement ‘Papaya.’

Whatever problem is stretching out in front of you, it CAN be overcome.

You just have to do things that are hard.

The soft things will come later:

Sitting by the campfire.

Watching the stars.

Sharing a bottle of wine with friends.

Laughing at the hike from the ridge.

Contentedly, quietly enjoying the view as the sun rises.


Bikini Bodies

zumba

I’ve been to both Hawaii and Florida, and I know that neither of them resemble the interior design mashup known as Kristall Palm Beach, a spa/water complex outside Nürnberg, Germany.

It is a wonderful place–it just has multiple personalities.

  • Kristall: because of the rocks & natural hot water springs in this part of Germany
  • Palm Beach: American, if you ask me
  • Poloynesia is represented by the hula girls on pedestals and the giant Gauguin paintings surrounding the wave pool
  • The Turkish bath area, with its colorful mosaics and hot tubs
  • The Space Alien waterside area, where the children are happily stowed upon arrival
  • The Egyptian sauna complex, into which I once stumbled for a pedicure and was never the same again

On a trip to Kristall Palm Beach a couple months ago, my tankini was literally billowing around me in the salt tub; and I could have used a pair of suspenders exiting the sprudel pool.

I had put the entire incident out of my mind until recently when, on a whim, we decided to go back to Palm Beach. The only other modest suit I had was even larger than my old one, and would never withstand the rigorous jets of the salt tub.

But there was one more suit. My beloved tankini had come with a matching, more revealing counterpart–the bikini. But because it was on discount, the only size left had been a small. I remember trying it on soon after I got it and tucking it away into a drawer, thinking I could never possibly wear it in public, even though here in Germany, grandmas wear bikinis.

Before I started Crossfit, I would see the old people in their speedos and bikinis getting out of the pool after water aerobics and avert my eyes, but now I am fascinated.

I watch how people move and walk; how they carry themselves; if their shoulders are back; I look for muscle tone and core strength and how their legs work and how they use their upper bodies. For the most part, despite the physical exercise, the majority of these people have not aged well.

I DO give them credit for getting out and exercising, it’s just that I would like to prevent certain things, like the typical hunched back, that I frequently see.

Sure, there may be ailments or diseases you can’t predict; but sometimes the state of a body is due to a steady diet of schnitzel and pommes–and no amount of Aqua Zumba can correct that.

I have two amazingly healthy grandmas, and they BOTH tell me things like ‘eat your veggies,’ and ‘stand up straight.’ My Auntie tells me stories about my grandma wearing hot pants and standing on her head; and exercising in the era of the young Jack LaLanne.

It’s not about how you look in a bikini, because it is possible to be ‘skinny fat,’ but it’s about working what you have, so you can show your great-grandkids how to do cartwheels.

I want to be the eccentric grandma who is standing on her head when the kids walk into the room. I want to take them hiking in the alps or cross-country skiing or go running with them or swimming in a cold alpine lake and not get too tired to play. I want that energy now. I want to sprint and push press and run ultras–who cares how I actually ‘look’ in my bikini?

Yes, I wore the bikini. While it felt strange at first, I quickly lost my self-consciousness about it. In fact, I was LESS self-conscious wearing it than I had been with the billowy tankini.

Not only did it stay put in the Turkish baths, but for the very first time, I felt secure enough to face the Space Aliens with the kids.

After a fun day of waterslides and wave pools and body-watching, I went home and did the unthinkable: I ordered another bikini–size small.

I will be wearing it for a long time to come.