Black Cat

Going not gentle into that middle age.

What’s Different?

Filed under: Expat — 19 August 2006 @ 7:46 pm

My friend Thomas brings up a very good point in his comment to the previous entry, Friends and Acquaintances. He suggests that the reason I’m happier here in Germany than I was in America is not just that Germans are different from Americans. He suggests that I made changes in my own life when I moved here — that I allowed this new environment to influence me. This is something that I hadn’t considered, but I think he’s right.

In America, other than socializing at lunchtime during the week, I mostly pursued solitary interests — reading, cross-stitching, reading, sewing, reading, knitting, and the like. Did I mention reading? The one group I did join, the Embroiderers Group of America, was fun (our motto here at Stitcher’s Camp: “she who dies with the most unfinished projects wins!”), but I never went out of my way to approach other people in the group to get to know them better. I was shy. Here in Germany, I joined the American Women’s Club, where I was a proofreader for the club magazine, I learned how to write critical reviews of movies and museum exhibits, and I taught myself how to write html code so I could create a website for the club. All of these club activities required interacting with other club members and stretching my mental comfort zone. I’m still a shy person, but I’ve managed to step out of my shell and meet people by pretending that I am not shy.

In America, as an adult I rarely used the French and Spanish that I learned in school. If pressed, I could read a bit of simple Spanish and French, and painfully pull a few words from the depths of my memory when I had to communicate with a Spanish-speaking person. Here in Germany I had to learn a new language at the age of 46 and use it daily for the last 11 years because most of the people in this small town have forgotten most of the English that they learned in school. If we had moved to the big city of Hamburg, we could have gotten away with learning only enough German to shop at the grocery store and order at a restaurant. I was adventurous enough to remain in this small town instead of insisting that we move to the big city where communicating would have been easier (actually I knew that I am a lazy bastard and wouldn’t have learned the language if I didn’t have to).

Because I learned German, I have been able to take classes at Museums and Adult Education (die Volkshochschule) in topics that interest me — painting and bookbinding, history and gardening. I had these interests in America, but I didn’t follow through with those interests. Now I feel like an adventurer. I’ve met a lot of interesting people and learned a lot of interesting things — in a language that I didn’t know a few years ago!

In America I had a car. I drove everywhere, including the two blocks to the grocery store. I couldn’t imagine life without a car (topic for another blog entry!). I was in lousy physical condition. Here in Germany we have never had a car. We travel with bus and train, and by foot. My husband has a bicycle. I have a backpack and a two-wheeled shopping trolly (called a “Hacken-Porsche” — the “Porsche” that follows close by your heels, like a well-trained dog). We are in much better physical condition because we have to walk a lot. The people in this town are familiar to us because we see them frequently as we walk everywhere rather than zoom past as we travel sealed inside our private steel car.

In Silicon Valley we were used to insecure jobs (almost every company that my husband and I had ever worked for had gone bankrupt — uh, should we take that personally?), and acquaintances that didn’t seem to want to pursue friendships, and a lifestyle based on consumerism. Other than our immediate families, there wasn’t much to emotionally bind us to to the area. It seemed like an adventure 11 years ago to pack up the cats and move to Germany for a couple of years. We thought we’d have a few adventures traveling all over Europe, learn to speak German fluently in 6 months (*snicker*), pick up a few quaint cultural differences to relate to the folks back home, and then return. What we found after arriving here is that no one back home is interested in those quaint customs, the language is a bitch and we’re still struggling with it, and that it isn’t necessary to travel all over Europe because everytime we step outside our front door we’re in a foreign country.

Gradually this place has become home, rather than a quaint place to have an adventure. It *is* true that people here are more likely to make dates, and actually show up for those dates, thus allowing for the possibility of discovering compatible interests on which to base a friendship. But I had to be open to those opportunities to make friends and learn about another culture.

Maybe physically leaving my familiar surroundings and language was the opportunity I needed. When I arrived here I had nothing familiar other than my husband and the cats, and the only way I could live here was to learn new things. In opening myself up to what was supposed to have been a two year adventure, I opened myself up to not only a new culture and language, but also new possibilities within myself that I didn’t know were there.

Annegret, my friend and neighbor across the street, thinks that I am a type of person who has been interested all along in learning new things and meeting new people, but it wasn’t until I arrived here that I had a chance to expand my world. She says that I would have been open to new experiences regardless of which country I landed in. She thinks that I was an adventurous type from the beginning. Maybe. I still think of myself as timid. But when I look at the last 11 years, I guess I’ve done some brave things. And met some really nice people (yes, some of them from America and a few other countries). And I’m not lonely anymore.

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  1. PJ:

    Annegret has you pegged! For all of your life (OK, you were 3 1/2 years old when I was born, so I can’t swear to it) you have delighted in life. You have never lost your child-like fascination with the world around you. It’s one of the many things about you that make me feel lucky to be your sister, even from so far away. On one hand, I selfishly despair that you’re not even CONSIDERING coming “home,” and on the other hand I am thrilled that, after 11 years, you still find the world outside your front door so exciting. And that you share it with me so generously!

    With deep love,
    your little sis

  2. IAMB:

    It’s amazing what a change of scenery can do for your personal happiness. Mine wasn’t as drastic as moving to another country, but around the time I turned 18 I left the LDS dominated area I live in and spent a summer out in the Arizona desert with a bunch of hippies. Not something I’d normally do, but my favorite cousin insisted so I went with it.

    Certainly came back a changed person. They taught me how to relax and enjoy the moment. The lesson stuck.

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