When It’s Time To Go Home: A Story About Giving Up
When I was young, I devoured National Geographic on a monthly basis. Sure, Teen People made its way through my peripheral vision from time to time, but National Geographic slithered deep into my heart and held on. Coming from a Southern Californian, suburban, divorced family with no affinity towards The Great Outdoors, we did what a lot of middle-class suburban families do. An occasional road trip, a thousand Best Western hotels, and often a ton of crappy daytime television (You can bet that I know all of Judge Judy’s best sellers, including my favorite: Don’t Pee on my Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining.) It was normal, comfortable, but lacked the grit and the grime of saving the gorillas with Dian Fossey, or even the quaintness Rick Steves professes as he gallivants through Europe. My adventures during childhood, were dare I say, All-American.
So when I had the chance to move to Hamburg, Germany to teach English to adults, it felt like a jump start to my poorly guided fantasies of culture and intrigue around every corner. Sure, I knew there was going to be an occasional Starbucks, America is known for infiltrating every corner of the world, but I thought I would be a natural at adjusting to a new way of life. Currywurst! Tall and blonde people! Maybe some vague references to WWII!
A lifetime of reading about others going on adventures should have prepared me, right?
When studying for my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) test, the teacher mentioned something about experiencing “Culture Shock”. I wasn’t listening. I was daydreaming about eating bread, yelling “Guten Tag!” out of my European windows to handsome German men. I probably should have been paying attention. The “culture shock” came in forms that I never experience on two week vacations up the California coast. It came with time, continuous exposure, and forced me to recognize my “otherness” even in a westernized country.
In northern Germany, people like to stare. They like to size you up. This includes Grandmothers, children, and even dogs. They all stare and you are forced to stare back. As an American who openly smiles at people, this slowly chipped away at me as too many toddlers gave me the stink eye. They like being on time. They like sports more than I ever thought humanly possible. My age demographic seemingly constantly dressed well, and groomed themselves often. There is nothing wrong with any of these practices, but you can bet being a self conscious, abundantly lazy person in both physical and fashionable appearance caused a deep panic that wasn’t easily extinguished.
Next was the subtle homesickness that crept around the edges at night. The blankets aren’t the same size. The taste of Mexican food was now made for a European palate. Work became an island for friendships. You’re with native speaker teachers but you’re surrounded by German speakers. There is a barrier as a monolingual and it is tremendously difficult to cross over to the other side. The smiling openness and absolute flakiness of American culture was in direct conflict with the seriousness and reliability of the German one. It caused distress and heartache, and then, miraculously, growth.
There were many months when I was on top of my game. I was able to order a coffee in German without flinching. I got my first German haircut. I started a flourishing food group. I even went to a infamous German spa (never, ever again). I was becoming a pseudo-German. Over time I was stuck between an inner longing and hating America and conforming but always on the outside of German social behaviors. Without deeply understanding the language, I could see I was not going to flourish here. Not surprisingly, ordering a coffee is not the same as having a soulful conversation with someone.
A German Boyfriend
When I met my German boyfriend I thought things would change. I had an insider now! He himself only half German, perhaps he could simultaneously provide top secret information about German subtleties but also know what it felt like to be an outsider looking in. He attempted to teach me German (Surprise! I do not have an ear for language!) and we ate questionable foods that I was too weirded out to try before. I watched him without his knowledge like a fly under a microscope. “What are you all about?” I wondered. “Why can’t I infiltrate the German mindset?” There was still growth to be had here, and I truly wanted to experience it all. At night, however, amongst my strange blankets, I still felt the lack of belonging as I looked out into the darkness, even with the American moon staring back at me.
The human spirit is amazing. With time, humans can adjust to quite a lot. I was not happy yet, but I was making connections. I was filling in the blanks. Some of the words that mystified me before became clearer with repetition and exposure. I was feeling sturdier than ever. I was ready to challenge myself again, at least, I thought I was.
After all of this growth and self reliance, the pinnacle of this journey had me travel more east. On my 30th birthday, nearly a year after I moved to Germany, the boyfriend and I decided to go to Japan. It was the one place that has been in my heart and mind since I opened those National Geographic’s all those years ago. And it was glorious. The shrines, the temples, the humility, the customer service, the cartoon characters, the jingles at the train stations…it was everything my heart wanted. I felt invigorated and energized. It was the cherry on top of a magnificent sundae…until the plane ride back.
From Tokyo to Helsinki (a stop over before Hamburg), I became violently ill. The kind of illness that is a worst nightmare when stuck with a hundred people in a metal box for ten hours. I couldn’t stop vomiting. I would drink water, and I would vomit it back up in a sad little puddle. I would drink nothing and I would dry heave air. It was past the stage of stomach bile before the flight attendant said that I was unfit to fly. She was an ex-nurse, and very kind, she let me lie in the back of the plane, but I was past the stage of kindness and into delirium.
When the medics took me off the plane in the most dramatic fashion possible, the ambulance drove me towards the Helsinki hospital. At that point, I was so dehydrated they couldn’t get a blood sample. They also said I blacked out a few times. The only thing I really remember, as I looked at my well-meaning-but-painfully-unhelpful boyfriend was that I didn’t want to be here. Not in the hospital, not in Helsinki, not with my boyfriend and certainly not in Germany. I wanted to go home. My real home. My birth home. And I wanted to cry, a lot, but without water in my system there are no tears.
I made it to my German home in one piece, but my mind had shifted dramatically. Perhaps emptying out my system jump started my brain. The subtle but potent homesickness from before snapped into overdrive. I was not coming back “home” to Germany, it was as if I was continuing a vacation that I did not want to be a part of any longer. I realized that this chapter of my life was done. I wanted 7up with ice cubes for my upset stomach. I wanted my mother’s chicken soup. I even wanted Judge Judy as white noise as I went to sleep on the couch.
Breaking Up With Germany
After putting in my work notices, breaking up with my boyfriend (for other reasons, bigger reasons, but this reason too), I was spent. I was trying my best to be the most responsible person I can under these painful circumstances, but there was a distinct bittersweetness in the air. Spring came while we were in Japan, and it felt so lovely. The long German winter was over, and flowers were blooming everywhere. The friends I made since moving here wanted to see me. My company classes missed me. There were roots growing that I ignored that I could only see as I was actively moving beyond it. There was an extreme gut feeling of energy depletion, defeat, failure, and even regret. I painfully realized that I will miss the thing that I’m running away from.
There is no way of knowing if I made the right decision. A few more months in Germany could have equaled happiness and contentment. But the grit and the grime that I so desperately wanted in my youth came to me in ways that weren’t climbing mountains or camping in the wilderness. It came from challenging my heart, body and mind in directions that perhaps aren’t spectacular or amazing, but nevertheless toughened me up for the next adventure: starting over again.