I have returned to America. Two weeks after being home, I got to thinking about my abandoned blog and decided it would be appropriate to post something culminating. If I could sum up my trip in a few paragraphs, I would. But it would take pages of space and a lifetime of reflection to do my experiences justice, so I am not going to try. I think simply a few remarks that may be of interest someone reading this who is curious about studying abroad will have to suffice.
First, people keep asking me if I miss Germany. I’ve found that question really difficult to answer, I think because of how casually I was able to jump right back into the life that I had left–almost like everything paused while I was away, and all I had to do was push play when I returned. This has had the strange effect of making my ten months abroad seem more like distant memories than a recent reality. I am slightly apprehensive now, because if my experiences have faded from memory this fast already, it might be a difficult thing to keep them vivid enough to reflect accurately and entirely, and to cherish what I loved and may never be able to experience again.
A journal would have been a good idea, and I just now realized that I threw away my feeble attempts at one that happened on the plane ride home. -sigh-
And secondly, since I am talking about reflection: I have noticed that there have been very few opportunities for verbal reflection, which happens to be how I like to process things. I am pretty sure that it is important to work through experiences like living for a year in a foreign country, not only because I feel an overwhelming need to talk about what I’ve done, but also because I know that I won’t know what I learned until I’ve articulated it. However, there are few people who want to sit down and listen to me talk about Germany, or who are interested and insightful enough to prompt good discussion about it–it is striking how ‘good’ is often a sufficient reply to inquiries about how my time abroad was. I have the feeling that this is not an unusual situation, but I don’t have any novel ideas about working around it–perhaps just being aware that it happens is beneficial.
As a last remark, I would like to point out that, as mournful as I feel about having to say goodbye to Munich and all of the friends that I met there, it would be silly to wish that I could have stayed indefinitely. The transitory nature of my stay was exactly what made it the experience that it was. Had I not known I was coming home in ten months, I doubt I would have pushed myself to step out of my comfort zone as often, especially in order to meet people; I surely would have been less inclined to jump on a train and head to the alps or train for a half marathon; and I don’t think I could have appreciated every bike ride through the Englischer Garten, Fussball match watched in a beer garden, or frisbee toss while grilling in the atrium of Studentenstadt like I did, knowing that it would soon be my last.
The limits on my stay made me approach my experiences in a way I would not have otherwise. I was more intentional about what I did and more appreciative of each experience–and probably less worried by my troubles. Looking back, I see the value in living this way, and the fact that I do not do so in the routine of my life here becomes glaringly and dishearteningly obvious. Sometimes my heart aches to go back to Germany, and I miss the adventures and the beauty and the new discoveries. But there are adventures to be had and beautiful things to see and good things to discover EVERYWHERE. Including where I am and where you are and where we will go in the future.
And that, I think, is a good ending to this story. Go in peace and live with intention, because going abroad has life-changing potential just as does staying home.
I just re-read my last blog, which I wrote over a month ago…so very much has happened since then. It will take me a couple of blogs to tell you about it, but trust me: it’s gonna be great. However, I am going to begin with the most boring part of the recent past, and by that I mean that schoolwork that I had to do.
At the time of my last blog, I was dreading the end-of-semester work that was looming overhead. Truth be told, I spent a good part of the last month and a half either writing papers or worrying about papers. But after a few pushed-back deadlines, a lot of re-writing and many, many stressful and seemingly unproductive hours, I am pleased to announce that I am now COMPLETEY finished with all of last semester’s work.
It was, however, a very different culmination than a typical Eastern university semester’s end. I started out under the impression that my grades were due two weeks from my last blog (so, beginning of February), when in fact, technically my grades weren’t needed until the beginning of March.§ After realizing this, I decided that I should turn my papers in with enough time for my professors to have a week or so to grade them (so, middle of February). But it turned out that they really only needed a day or two to grade papers, so my actual deadline then became the very end of February. And then there was a class or two for which it didn’t really matter if I turned in my final paper in a timely manner at all, as long as it was done by the beginning of next semester (so, middle of April).
This no-real-deadline thing could have been disastrous; however—and I have no idea really how this happened—I managed to painstakingly complete one paper and then another and another, interspersed with a couple of trips and some goofing off, until finally I turned in my last paper last weekend. It felt good, but it wasn’t the same euphoria as typically follows one’s last final: it was such a drawn-out, indefinite process, that I had been ‘nearly done’ for weeks before I was actually finished.
§ (this is supposed to be a footnote, but then it is sort of turning into middle of the paper comment…just go with it) In case anyone reads this and was wondering about the grading process in Deutschland, here is how it works: if you want a grade for a class, you get in the form of a ‘Schein’ or paper certificate, that the professor puts your grade on and signs. I think normal German students collect them and then must have them all when it comes time to prove completion of their degree or something. For me, my program gave me their own Schein that I had to actually hand to my professor and say ‘I need a grade for this class’ and then he filled out and turned in. Typically, the grade for a class is just the grade you get on your final paper (or exam) and maybe one presentation that you did during the semester. And, the final paper turn-in (or exam) normally happens a month or so after the end of classes. That means, the end of classes isn’t the end of the semester; it is the beginning of the time in which you study a lot for your tests or write a lot of papers.
I haven’t decided definitely which approach I like better, the American or German system. However, the facts are that: 1) I had so much free time to enjoy myself this semester 2) the month of writing papers was bad, but that was probably the fault of my lack of concentration 3) I actually got things done.
Anyway, I am hungry and I have all the ingredients for banana-oatmeal-chocolate chip-peanut-almond cookies sitting in front of me. So, I am going to go bake. Bis dann.
It is snowing right now, and I am inside on a Saturday morning trying to write papers. The month of January has been a marked change in my German Erfahrung. It began with the best New Year’s eve celebration EVER and is culminating in a frantic realization that, yes, I do have things that I have to accomplish before the semester ends.
I must say something about New Year’s eve. I never before had to describe to someone how I usually celebrate the new year, but of course I was asked about it here, and my explanation came out sounding ridiculous. Observe:
Me: ‘Well, we have parties with friends and eat food and hang out and stuff.’
German: ‘Aren’t there fireworks and stuff?’
Me: ‘Yeah, I guess probably in some places, but not really.’
Me: ‘Well, we all count down to midnight! …and then we watch…a ball drop…’
Me: ‘Well, it doesn’t really drop, it just kind of falls slowly.’
German: ‘What happens when it hits the ground? Does it explode?’
Me: ‘Um, no. Actually…I don’t really know what happens…I think there are bright lights or something. And then people kiss each other.’
Score negative 10 for America…hahaha what is that ball dropping thing? In Germany, they go absolutely NUTS with fireworks. One of the other Americans told me she was in the city center and people were just setting off fireworks left and right without regard for other people, making the entire experience extremely perilous. Actually, in France this year they banned the use of fireworks on New Year’s eve (or something? I haven’t verified this, I was just told by someone who was there) because it was too dangerous.
But I, my friend, had the privilege of enjoying the fireworks from the top of my building (which happens to be one of the highest buildings in München), in the rain with a glass of sekt and German friends. At midnight the city just EXPLODED with fireworks, and they continued for at least half an hour, and it was the coolest thing I have ever seen. EVER. So cool.
So, ‘Respekt’ (and score 10) to the Germans and their firework-mania, because it so outdoes American ball dropping (which is so lame it got negative points).
Anyway, like I said: snowing, homework, and obviously I am not really being productive since I am writing this instead of my paper on Uzbekistan, or my paper on German education, or my paper on Goethe, or my paper on Plato’s Gorgias. It seemed like the end of the semester was so far away going into Christmas break, but actually now it is a mere 2 weeks away, and I have two weeks to write all of those papers. Also I got a job this week, which is great and I’ll probably talk about it sometime, but what terrible timing really, because I can no longer afford the leisure of carelessly gallivanting about München.
Actually, this 180 degree change in direction is quite a good example of something I observed about my life last week: it is absolutely an emotional roller coaster. It is astounding and a bit dispiriting that one day (or week) can be full of the best experiences and most motivated feelings ever, and the very next day (or week) is full of the most unproductive efforts and discouraging interactions. Perhaps my context (being in a foreign country and all) heightens my emotions and so the highs and the lows are all the higher and lower; but, regardless, life is, even as I remember it, continuously changing from good to bad.
On that note, the snowflakes have now stopped zooming past my window and instead are just floating lazily around, making their way downward at a leisurely and meandering pace. Aha! Snowflakes, too, change emotion. I like the floating ones better than the zooming ones, and I could probably make an analogy about life from that or something, but they are just snowflakes and I just woke up. Instead I think I am going to go sit by my window and play a song about snowflakes on my ukulele. Ciao.
I made a list earlier of first time experiences that I have had abroad. I now have something momentous to add to it: first Christmas in Germany. Celebrating a holiday in another country is super cool—think about how much traditions differ simply from family to family in America; country to country opens up the door for a cornucopia (yes, I did use that word) of new practices and attitudes.
I would like to make a note here: ‘first Christmas in Germany’ could also be ‘first Christmas away from home,’ but between the two options, I chose the former quite intentionally. I was forewarned many times about how tough it would be to celebrate Christmas without my family, and I was consoled just as many times when people found out I was staying in Deutschland for the holiday break. Thus, especially because people so unquestioningly expected such, it would have been quite easy and natural to be sad and lonely on my ‘first Christmas away from home.’ On the other hand, I want this to be my ‘first Christmas in Germany,’ because that is new and exciting and full of things for me to learn—in the grand scheme of things, after 20 years of Christmas in the same place, changing things up for a year is quite a good idea.
I would here like to add a second part to this note before moving on: if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, my advice to you is to remember that your experiences are yours, and I think you have quite a lot of power to do with them what you would like. People like to tell you what to expect (…it is funny, because I am doing that exact thing right now), and as helpful and even accurate as the advice of others will tend to be, the truth is that nobody can actually say how things have to go. It is quite a tricky situation, I have discovered, because if a hundred people tell me ‘Christmas will be sad away from home’ then my reflex is to expect that it will probably be so, and then it usually is. But actually there is not some objective, pre-determined order of how my Christmas had to be; my expectations form my attitude and my attitude shapes (at least to some extent) the experience. Thus, if I have some power over my expectations, I also therefore have some power over how I experience life. Life, then, is flexible and malleable, and allowing the prescriptions of others to form my expectations is to needlessly give other people some control over my life.
I would like to make one more very short note: I would rather control my life than let other people do so.
So, my first Christmas in Germany. Leading up to Christmas there are Weihnachtsmärkte everywhere and outdoor Christmas decorations nowhere. I find this a much better situation than that in America, where I have never seen a Christmas market and am assaulted by icicle lights and shining snowmen-reindeer-Santa Claus displays around every corner. I am not even going to mention the tacky inflatable snowglobe epidemic…
Granted, walking through a neighborhood in America feels like Christmas, and to be honest there were a couple moments where I missed lights dangling from porch roofs and tree branches. But there is something incomparably ‘Christmas’ about walking through a Weihnachtsmarkt: all around you is hustle and bustle, but it is not the commotion of stressed and frantic Christmastime shoppers; it is the movement of people enjoying good food, Glühwein (or feuerzangebowle…look it up), handmade crafts (as opposed to massed produced, plastic toys), Christmas music compliments of a group of musicians in the corner, and the company of close friends. The closest thing in America to a Weihnachtsmarkt atmosphere that I can think of is a department store at Christmastime…but no, that atmosphere is so much more stressful, shallow, aesthetically unpleasing, and commercialized that it would be an insult to make the comparison. And there aren’t food stands or alcohol in a department store.
So anyway, Christmas begins on Heilige Abend the 24th. This is the night that Germans exchange gifts, which are brought mysteriously by the Christkind (a little angel boy). It is like the Santa Claus thing, but it doesn’t work nearly as well because it happens in the middle of the celebration after dinner, and the kids have to be entertained while the parents sneak gifts in…that would be a lot easier in the middle of the night (score 1 for America). And, if you ask me, the Christkind is a bit creepier than jolly old St. Nick. But, whatever (someone told me that the Christkind thing started here to get away from the shallow American Santa Claus, but I don’t know if that is true). Anyway, then the Germans have TWO days of Christmas—the 25th and the 26th. This means that they do not have to frantically try to see everyone they love in one day; family dinners are spread over the entire three-day affair, which makes the holiday far more relaxed than the frantic American cram-everything-into-one-day 25th of December (score 1 for Deutschland).
So yeah, Christmas in Germany was a pretty fun time, not to mention that I got a burrito as a gift, which is testimony to the number of times I said ‘I miss Chipotle’ since being here. It was, however, a rather strange experience as well, because at the same time as feeling less shallow, it was a bit less meaningful. Like I mentioned earlier, Christmas here didn’t seem to have the same commercialized hype that it does in America. But I was also surrounded by a culture in which practically no one is a Christian, so Christmas was not as much about God redeeming the world as it was about, well, having a holiday and spending some time with the family or something. Of course these things are good, but in comparison to the incarnation of Christ, it fell a little flat. But just a little, because I still sang ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem’ and enjoyed good beer, good food, and good fellowship in thankfulness for God’s love.
“Es gibt verrückte Leute überall.‘ Who said that? What does it mean? Well, I’d be happy to tell you.
I was watching TV with some of my neighbors and a commercial came on advertising a ‘talent show’ for Gerbils or some such thing, and it was so absurd that I thought it must be a joke. So I turned to the girl beside me and asked her if they were serious, to which she assured me of their ‘Ernst’ with the statement, ‘Es gibt verrückte Leute überall.’ Translation: there are crazy people everywhere.
Haha. Yes, there are indeed. While there are certainly a lot of differences between Germans and Americans (and between people of any two different cultures), I’ve also enjoyed noticing lately the similarities between them–similarities that exist, I think, simply because we’re all human and therefore share something much deeper with each other than our culture can transcend.
I have seen the same kind of grumpy old lady here as I saw in the states, who makes me fear old age; and I’ve also once again run into the inspiringly happy, kind old lady who tells me she loves my curls and wishes me a good day in a way that makes it a good day. On the train, there is that same little girl throwing a temper tantrum who would be screaming in the grocery store, and another group of ten-year old boys with too much energy, chasing each other around the station much to the distress of whoever it is that is supposed to watching them.
In my philosophy class, there is that guy who sits in the back of every philosophy class wearing a scarf and glasses who thinks that he knows way more than he actually does. In my political science class you can find the girl who knows every current event that has ever happened and has enough opinions to match. Just like in America, some of the students take time to make their notes impressively neat and color coordinated, while others fill theirs with scribbles and doodles; some are engaged in the discussion, and others don’t really care; some have done their homework, and the rest are trying really hard to make it seem as if they have.
In the church I’ve been going to, I’ve been reached out to once again by the sort of people who have an extraordinary ability to love and give to others. And in the same way as my church at home (and, I would venture to guess, churches everywhere), some of the people in the congregation are rich, some are poor, some take leadership, some just follow, some are too open with their opinions, some don’t say enough, some are generous, some are stingy, some are forgiving, some are judgmental, some have a lot to learn, some know too much…the diversity is so vast, and yet it is the same diversity that I have seen everywhere else.
And the cool thing about it is that these Christians are also trying to grow together in Truth and Goodness. At the end of the day, even though we may come from very different places, what is good for them is good for me and is good for you; yes, particulars are particular, but because we are all human, we can understand, learn from, and deal lovingly with each other even if we have very real cultural differences.
This is an important articulation. I have found that cultural barriers can make interactions very difficult and awkward and discouraging, and it is easy, then, to stop trying to treat others well and just try to get yourself through your interactions with them as quickly as possible. But, aaah…even Germans have feelings and insecurities (haha), and my interactions with every one of them still have the power to do good or not. At the very least, going out of the your way to do someone a kindness can be appreciated everywhere, which means that it being slightly more difficult to approach people here is no excuse for staying away from them.
I’ve been having a lot of first time experiences in Germany. Here’s a short list of the most noteworthy thereof:
- first self-bought beer (at Oktoberfest, I might add; “Ziggy zaggy ziggy zaggy, oi oi oi!”)
- first mountain-climbing in the Alps (it might be more accurate to say ‘hiking’ instead of climbing, but still, it was beautiful)
- first time ordering food in a German restaurant (schnitzel, of course) [Bemerkung about German restaurants: you have to seat yourself, and you have to ask for the bill when you want it; otherwise it will never come. And German servers earn real wages, so tips are only like 5-10 percent. Now, that may seem nice when it comes time to pay, but as with everything in life, there is a trade off: lower wage-dependency on tip (it matters at least 100% less in terms of earnings for the servers how happy you are at the end of your meal), worse service. Thus, for example, sometimes here you have to sit and wait more than half an hour until someone will wait on you.]
- first time making a meal in my own kitchen (it’s nice to cook for yourself only when you feel like it…I must admit that sometimes I want Sodexo back, and especially Sodexo breakfast, since breakfast here is bread and meat and cheese…? where are my tater tots! haha)
- first run in the Englischer Garten
- first time using a German toilet… (http://asecular.com/~scott/misc/toilet.htm enough said)
- first non-language course in German (philosophy, naturally)
- first church service in German
- first time sitting in a lecture and understanding ABSOLUTELY NOTHING (math in German turns out to be nothing like math in English, or else I turned out to be much dumber than I thought)
All of that^ in itself is pretty unremarkable: any 20 year old moving to a country on a foreign continent is bound to experience a ton of new things. But the reason I’m mentioning it—besides the fact that it was a semi-interesting way to talk about my experiences—is because I was a bit surprised when I noticed how many details I unconsciously and intentionally stored away about these first things; and not only that, but I also noticed myself intentionally planning firsts to be momentous (like my Oktoberfest beer).
It is a common way for humans to interact with their experiences, this valuing of firsts (you know how it goes: birthdays mark the first day we’re alive, the first day of school is always a big deal, the first day of spring makes its way onto the calendar, etc.); and it makes sense: firsts are an easy and natural benchmark to take note of. We want to remember our lives as exciting or enjoyable or meaningful–or perhaps we just want to remember something, and our brains can’t handle remembering it all—so we zero in on time number one and try a little harder to make it something special. Of course, we could always use the third time or the eleventh, or maybe every other odd numbered experience to make special… but that’s just ridiculous and impractical. As you can see, and as is often the case with tradition (which is why we love tradition, yeah Cassie Miller?), there is something akin to reasonableness underlying this practice.
Now, okay, so we all do it and it is at least partly understandable. But I still have some beef with it, and here’s why: I noticed that, after working hard, for example, to really enjoy my first beer, I sort of forgot to try to enjoy the second one as much as the first. And in that, I am convinced, I lost something.
A friend of mine once told me that, in his opinion, life is most meaningful when everything is treated as an end in itself. So, zum Beispiel, I walk every Monday from the Ubahn station to the Mathematik building. I’m obviously walking in order to get to class (which itself is a very dismal prospect, since as I said earlier, I have never been as lost as I am in that Vorlesung), but instead of unconsciously treating those steps as simply means, I could also treat them as ends, experiences that are valuable in and of themselves. Then, plötzlich, I have so many more things to enjoy.
Now, I don’t know, living like that seems impossible and kind of silly. Like, obviously I am walking to get somewhere, and in order to enjoy each step individually, I would have to try so hard that I probably wouldn’t enjoy any of it at all. But the idea is there, and I think it is a good one, in a much simpler and more practical way: there is a lot of life to enjoy right now–not just first beers or Mathematik Vorlesungen (well, still didn’t enjoy that one), but also small things in between, like the walk to the Math building and the second beer, or the third or the fourth (hey, I’m in Germany).
Most of life (all of life, too) could be spent in anticipation of the future. I walk to Math in order to hear the lecture in order to get a grade in order to receive a math degree in order to be a math teacher in order to make money in order to save for retirement in order to retire. But, if I only get to the end at retirement and can finally enjoy something, well, that was a sad life. Likewise, if I only make an extra-special effort to enjoy some first-time experiences, that was a sad life too, since there are also a lot of great experiences in the middle.
So, here I am at the end of a long blog, hopefully during which you had to look up and learn some German words (if you’ve been wondering why I throw them in, that’s why); I will be honest and say I didn’t enjoy every single finger strike on the keyboard, but I did get to eat some delicious, green (oops) banana muffins that I baked yesterday (I gave one to a German after assuring him that they taste better than they look, and his response was ‘…it’s okay.’ hahaha) and I think today I might enjoy a few more things than I otherwise would have. Erfolg!
“Werde, der du bist!”
Do you know who said that? Nietzsche, and Hans Peter Soeder. You probably know who Nietzsche is, but I bet you don’t know Hans Peter (HP, we shall call him). One of the most sparkling people I’ve ever met, HP is an aged, educated, easy-going, charismatic, German-speaking man who runs the Junior Year in Munich program through which I am studying abroad. ”Es tut mir Leid” (literally: it does me sorrow) that you do not have the pleasure of knowing him.
One of the first pieces of advice he imparted to an adoring group of JYMers was that the most important thing to know in order to have a job like his and office as cool as his (really, this office is totally worthy of this man) is how to smoke a pipe. And he proceeded to take out his pipe and smoke it while giving us a wonderful tour of Munich.
And it was also on this tour that HP told us: werde, der du bist! Unfortunately for you, you probably don’t speak German. Werde, der du bist! is a command (German commands end in exclamation points, in case you were wondering) to become who you are. HP gave us this command in the context of “entdecking” (discovering, uncovering) Munich. The experiences that we have, he promised, will define who we are. Therefore, it is up to us to act like the good students in Munich that we want to be.
There are, obviously, many things to unfold about this idea. “Frag was du willst!” (ask the questions you want to); it is certain to be good for you. However, what I find at this present moment most noteworthy about this imperative is what HP implied by using it about what a good student in Munich actually is. On our tour, he showed us museums, cafes, restaurants, bars, and clothing shops, making sure to inform us about the history of these places and the people that we would meet in them. These things are important to our experience in Germany. Apparently being a student in Munich is about more than doing schoolwork.
There is something very appealing about being a student here when it becomes an endeavor to know and spend time with the city, enjoying its people, food, artwork, and architecture; and it is especially exciting in a place with such a rich a history and a worldview very different from mine. I have a suspicion that I will learn more from the experiences I have in Munich outside of the classroom. HP could be wrong about what it means to be a good student in Munich, but I think it is exactly what I would like to “werden.” I look forward to a year full of good-student-being and the learning and growth that will go with it!