Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Chapter 7, In which the ways were parted, and I said a proper farewell

The time has come to bid farewell to Germany, at least for now. My class is drawing to its close – I have a meager 3 lectures more before the end of the course. It seems that much time has passed, for me – and yet it’s really only been 2 months. Now, I’ll grant that these two months have hardly been your typical two months – without excessive details, most people don’t have a serious relationship broken off at the start of an immersion program. But that aside, there is an element which is hard to describe, which makes the time feel almost infinitely long.

I suppose, if I were to be forced into a description, I would say that it feels like I have always been here, and like I could be here forever. I am ever challenged to be concise…so perhaps it is this: it feels like I could make a life here. This is a fundamental realization that I think many people probably go their whole life without reaching – there is a world outside of home, outside of our culture and comfort zone, where life goes on. No matter what life throws at me once I return, I will always have the knowledge that, should push come to shove, I could relocate and (perhaps not immediately) thrive.

It’s perhaps easiest to understand this by thinking about the things that I will miss, once I’m gone. I have grown used to the image of myself as a foreign fish in the pond, if you will. Maybe a brightly colored tropical one, or maybe just a dull goldfish. The point is, it’s not my home habitat, and I expect at this point that whenever I communicate with people, some percentage will be lost. In the US, I do not think about communication. I am most certainly fluent in English, and I do not waste time on the medium – all my attention is focused on the content. This sounds like the German experience would be negative, but at some level it’s extremely refreshing. I feel much like a child, in that I spend every day discovering how to express myself. At home, I am a student, but it’s hardly as if advanced calculus or numerical methods will let me better order my food, or find a book, or buy a fountain pen! There’s a simple pleasure to being able to communicate with people, and the feeling that I’m improving day by day is one I will sorely miss. (My music is now in German, my keyboard is configured German style, my default thinking language is German (you have no idea how hard it is to type/speak English anymore), and even my books are in German! That’s right – I’m reading a German book. Admittedly, only at about 60% comprehension, but that’s enough to start learning words, and recognizing things.)

I’ll also miss some of the smaller things. While here, I’ve developed a set of routines – admittedly, they’ve changed about from start to finish, but I’ll share one with you. My class meets from 13.30 – 18.00, Monday through Friday. Since the class started, more or less, my routine for dinner has been much the same – following my class, I take a train into the Altstadt (old city), and make my way to my favorite Italian restaurant. They have a special there – 1 Pizza to go for 4 €. That’s pretty good, and they have standing tables outside to eat at. So I order my pizza, they cook it in the brick oven, and 10 minutes later I’m eating (olives, mushrooms, and onions, in case you were wondering). After I’m done, I wander a bit through the old city. I make sure to pass a kiosk a friend took me to once – I pick up a beer (usually a fruit mixture: I am particularly partial to the grapefruit mix, although the cactus fruit is also very good. This’d be Schöfferhofer, if you were wondering), and continue my meander. If I need anything, I’ll do a bit of shopping, and then I head home.

Embedded within this routine are all sorts of little things that I don’t even think about anymore, that I’ll be sad to lose. As many of you probably know, there’s this big soccer thing going on right now. And as many of you know, Europe is crazy for soccer. For the past few weeks, the old city has been FILLED to overflowing with people watching soccer during dinner – flat screen TVs everywhere! As I waited, I’d talk to the barkeep (or rather, he’d talk to me – daunting!) I’ll miss that, and even the general passion for soccer (so much better than football, or baseball. Believe me. I used to hate all of them equally. Soccer has grown on me some).

Another example: the process of shopping. It’s a bit different here! Shopping carts/baskets are the same, but at the register it changes. First, you’re expected to have brought your own bag – if you didn’t they’ll provide one, but you can feel the palpable geo(un)friendly disapproval. (Weltfreundlich is the German word for environmentally sound – it translates to ‘World friendly’). Then comes the actual payment. Say, for example, that your total is 21,57€. The expectation is that you will hand over exactly that. Not 25, not 22, exact change. This was a big difference for me at first – I had a lot of trouble with it. I’ve always felt in the US like people are waiting and disapproving if I take the time to count out exact change, so I never do it. Here, it’s the reverse. If you don’t give exact change, the cashier will frequently ask if you have some odd number of cents to make the tendering easier! At this point, I hand over exact change almost without thinking about it – screw the rest of the line! They’ll live. And then, you bag your own groceries. Yep. By yourself. Without help. In the bag you brought. Sweating yet? I was the first time – it was very different, and there was a feeling of ‘who doesn’t know how to go shopping? Foreigner. Jeez.’ But I’m pretty sure that was in my head – the people really are very friendly, and I made it through.

Needless to say, there are also certainly things I will not miss (read: things I am desperate to escape from). The Germans are very ecofriendly, and this has immediate and frequent ramifications. I’d break it down into 3 main categories that affect day to day life: water sparing, electricity sparing, and garbage awareness. The water sparing is probably the hardest for me to deal with, even now. I’ve been informed by my family from the US(in laughing tones) that much of the world actually turns off the water in the shower, while soaping up, so as to avoid fighting the water while doing the soaping. Personally, I find the experience of standing in a shower without water to be a tad cold. Here, that’s doubly (triply [quadruply]) true. The shower is not a proper shower – it’s a bathtub with a place to sit, and a hand held showerhead. There’s a device called a water-clock (which is simply a water meter) which measures your consumption. Water is VERY expensive, as you pay to have it delivered, and then to have the used water cleaned, so I was advised on the first day to please be very sparse in my use. Therefore, the routine is as follows: my shower takes exactly 4 minutes. Because that’s the fastest I can manage it. It takes 20 seconds after turning on the faucet for the water to achieve lukewarm bearable temperature. It takes an additional 40 seconds to get myself wet. Then the water is off! 1 minute to soap, 20 seconds to rinse hands, [water back off!] 30 seconds to shampoo hair. [ok, now I get water again] 1 additional minute to clean soap/shampoo off, and then 10 seconds to convince myself that turning off the faucet will not result in my turning into a block of ice. Even though I’ve been here a while, I’m always not quite convinced. In the end, it’s about two and a half minutes of water usage per shower.

I am an American. I miss my longer showers. A comic comes to mind – it depicts someone standing in the shower with the caption: 30 minute shower. First 2.5 minutes to get clean, then 27.5 minutes to think deep thoughts about the world. The electricity/garbage are not so hard to handle. With electricity, one simply unplugs everything when not in use. This really isn’t that hard to get used to, and is probably something I should continue to do at home. In terms of garbage awareness, one simply makes sure that everything goes into the appropriately colored receptacle. (There are 4 here – various types of glass and plastic, paper/cardboard, regular trash, and bio).

The final ‘not missed at all things’ are quick: the internet is unreliable, and the apartment above mine is being renovated. Translation: my internet dies at random times and I have no control over the router, so I’m forced to go to bed. Then people start banging hammers on the floor of the apartment above me at 8am, when no sensible person is awake! L Grr. Argh.

But the million dollar question is simple: was it worth it? The answer is, quite simply, yes. My personal experience was probably quite unique, in that I’m simultaneously adventurous, and shy. It is indeed an odd combo, I agree. I had some trouble reaching out to the people I was associating with, and the circumstances of my visit didn’t really help. Despite that, I managed to make some meaningful connections – I still have standing invitations to visit friends in Greece and the Ukraine, if I should ever be in those regions of the world! I also managed to tour this region of Europe – I saw Düsseldorf (from the resident’s perspective), Cologne, Essen, Bonn, Amsterdam, and Brussels. I toured the countryside a bit, and saw a large number of the local sites, from castles to museums. I even saw the European Parliament! I experienced a slice of life that was truly, completely different from my own, and I think my eyes were opened a bit for that. Heck, I even tried beer for the first time. (Outcome: I don’t really like dark beers, which is unfortunate, since that’s what this region is known for. Corollary: Discovered that I actually like fruity beers quite a bit. If it’s not so beery, it tastes good!)

Tomorrow, I’ll take an oral exam to finish my certification at the B1 level, and get my Zertifikat Deutsch. The day after, I suspect I’ll take a final oral exam at the B2.1 level, to finish off the course. Thursday I’ll get my documents from the institute office, say farewell to teachers and friends, settle accounts with my host family, and pack. And Friday…I fly home, via Ireland. I am simultaneously calm, sad, and excited. I cannot help but feel that this is not farewell for Germany – not for me. I’ll be back, someday, and maybe even someday in the not too distant future.

And now, dear reader, the time has come for us to part ways. For those who are close enough to talk to me in the real world, we will speak soon. For those who were watching from afar, I hope there was something here for you. And for those who stumbled upon my story by accident…I hope you were entertained.

Farewell, for now.