Taking stock and finding balance: a lifelong journey

Right now I’m in my lovely office eating strawberries and yogurt. My window is cracked open and I can smell the neighbor’s wood-burning stove going. I am feeling pretty spoiled at the moment. I ran down to the bakers this morning, about 200 feet down the road. We don’t usually go there, because it’s a bit pricey, but I wanted to surprise the hubby with fresh bread. On the way I passed a stand, selling cherries at rock bottom prices from their backyard and I couldn’t resist.

I get teased by a certain somebody that I will miss the excitement of a city, and moving around, but I don’t know if he maybe underestimates my love of nature.It is absolutely wonderful living somewhere where people are more connected to the land and seasons. You can get plenty of fresh produce in the city, but you can’t go to your neighborhood, throw-your-money-in-a-box fruit and veg stand, and happen to meet her coming over with a freshly picked packet of cherries. They also sell eggs, from their chickens, fed with the very grain they grow in their field. Now we are not out in the country. A 15 minute train ride gets me in the middle of a university city. It’s not a heaving metropolis, but still a city.I guess I should have known what was in store for me though when I moved onto “village street”. 😉

Anyway it’s nice to have these small things. As per usual, everything in my life worth having requires more patience. More patience for myself and others and the world, while trying to create good habits and strike a good balance. I think it’s this way for everybody, (especially women), but if I had to choose between constant struggle, or one large tragedy, It’d be an easy choice: the former.

Life isn’t easy. The last time it felt was 2005, when I came here for study abroad with enough money and naivete to enjoy the moment. I think everyone deserves that at least once, but some people spend their whole lives naively ignoring reality and creating problems their loved ones have to solve, and other people never have a carefree moment in their whole life. That is injustice to me. So I try to remember that when I catch myself thinking, that for all my hard work and efforts, I really deserve to not have to wait so long for every single step and always scraping by with money.

It’s all about give and take and finding balance. That’s why honestly I really don’t think adding kids into the mix will be any tougher on me overall. I’m not being naive about the physical exhaustion and never having enough time. Apparently a new study shows that after moms have kids they never go back to the level of pre-kids time stress, EVER, while men do. And obviously, it changes your outlook, but overall my whole life has been adjusting to new circumstances and trying to juggle as many commitments as possible. without going insane. I do not shy away from pursuing things I want, just because it’s hard. In many respects having kids will probably be easier on me than many other things I’ve attempted/achieved.

Moving forward with my career and studies is a huge struggle for me right now. Promised job offers fell through, there is still no end to no income in sight, or at least it’s all swirling around very haphazardly. What I’d really like, is still uncertain, and what I’d like to avoid is a sure thing. I wanted to have everything resolved by now. If I am lucky, in a month or so, I’ll have submitted my first scholarship application and will at least be invited for an interview. I feel positive about it overall, since it is clear I’d be a good fit, but will have to have the interview in German and I have a horrible track record of getting nervous in these situations. I’ll probably ask my friend to practice with me.

It’s actually something strange and cool about Germany. So here’s the deal, Germany has really strange citizenship laws first off because for nearly its entire existence the only way you could take on German citizenship was by blood (side note to Downtown Abbey fans, unless there is a clause I am not aware of, like you could just buy your way into it, there’s no way Lady Edith’s boyfriend could become German, unless he had German forefathers). So they’ve been slowly relaxing these laws, but very slowly. It was only after I had been here for a year that those in the Turkish community who had been here for three generations could become German at all. Just recently Germany has generously provided that they may even be dual citizens instead of making them choose one or the other at 18. But we Americans, who don’t have German parents are put in the same category as refugees. There is no dual citizenship for us, and without citizenship I can only vote on local elections, like for mayor. I know I can vote for councils and things like that, but I’m not actually sure where exactly they draw the line.

Anyway so even though I can’t really be invested in Germany’s political system, I can still apply for politically funded scholarships.  I actually think this is pretty cool. So that’s what I am applying for and it is a strange thing, to pick a political affiliation after all these years of living here, but the one I found believes in Europe and the worth of educating migrants and since that is what my research is about I am actually really excited to send off this application.

We’ll just see. So I am being patient. I need to do this right, so I don’t send off something too hasty and full of grammatical German and political errors. I need to write a research proposal, which means getting my very distracted advisor to meet with me (took her 3 months to send me a list of literature to get started) and hammer out my research ideas, and I need to make sure I do the right reading. If this works, it would double our income, give me a 300 Euro a month book budget, I’d get paid maternity leave, as well as an extra monetary boost once any children are born. I think anyone can see that I would be stupid not to at least try. I mean my grades are good enough and I am highly highly interested in politics and the development of a more equal society. But it’s a risk. There are others, but you can’t send the same application out, so I’m taking them one at a time.  Chances are about 33%

So there you go.

Some well-meaning peers here, after hearing my struggles with suddenly not having an income were like, “oh go apply to other doctoral programs”. And I’m like, “excuse me, do you understand the concept of being married?” I can’t just go wherever I get accepted first. It took me 2 1/2 years to get the person who claimed he wanted this long distance to end asap, out here. And actually the only reason he did was because I forced his hand and gave my notice in the dorms. I can’t just uproot our lives 4 months after he got here. I want to be married, I want to enjoy spending time with my husband and finally making memories in what’s been my home for 3 years now, together. If I want that, I can’t have other things. So strange to have to explain that to people. If you don’t want to be alone, you can’t be selfish. But then again, most people don’t understand me anyway. I mean I try to be honest with people, but if they don’t care to find out where I’ve been and how I’ve got there, then there’s just really no way our friendship will go beyond the surface. But I can’t just bore 24 years olds with a summary of my last ten+ years. That’s what my husband is for, hahahaha.

And that’s enough. I am strange. I have friends that get that, put up with me, love me. I never see them, but I trust in what we’ve shared the last decade of my life. I try to invest in my relationship, especially as right now, shift work is a killer, one week early, one week night and the next week late. So even though it means getting less work done, I still make sure I make dinner and free up the weekends to reconnect.

But cleaning the house happens only on the weekends, friends I see once a month, working out is nearly impossible, except for bike rides to the train station. My priority is my marriage, scholarship applications and working on my Greek, and these are all things that will not give me any quick results. So I am constantly figuring out what to drop and how to come close to “having it all”.

Now here’s where living abroad, and specifically Germany is nice. Not everything here is a rat race. We went out a few weeks ago to a restaurant, I can’t even remember where, but it was so cosy and adorable and I remember sighing and saying “I wish my parents could feel what it’s like to go out to eat and sit around for hours somewhere without a waiter breathing down your neck.” My husband realized to his surprise that it’d never occurred to him that almost every time we ate in America, it was rushed. Then we tried to remember if we had lounged in a restaurant like that with them, but could only think of one time in a bakery. Oh it’s so luxurious to go out to eat with no pressure. Or go to cafe and people watch for hours. Or meander through a market. Sit on your balcony when the sun is shining. Everything here is more relaxed that way. Doctors don’t forbid stressed out pregnant women from drinking half a glass of wine, or a shandy. Vacation time is sacred. Dads can take 3 months++ off for maternity leave, and some choose to spend it lounging in the summer on the beach somewhere. You can ride your bike around town if you are sick of waiting in traffic.

Finally for me, personally and as a woman, who will be told for the rest of my life, by complete strangers what I ‘ought to be doing’ it is nice to be an expat, and know that most people don’t get how my life really is. It’s like what I talked about last time I guess. If my friends have something to suggest, or an opinion about how they do things, I’ll take it into consideration. Otherwise it’s just noise and judgments from busy-bodies who don’t get it. I won’t go crazy trying to meet society’s expectations of what it means to be a career women and/or mother, when I belong to many societies and none at the same time.

So I’ll continue on. Maybe I make it harder on myself with my ambition and wanting to achieve various things, but I have a relaxed pace of life and beautiful neighborhood to do it in, a husband that supports me and the knowledge that I may not always be right about the best way to do things, but the people who barely know me, are not allowed to become the voices in my head, filling me with self-doubt.

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On cultural clashes and coming home

I’ve got to admit this, I don’t think I will ever get the hang of this blogging thing. I debate just deleting the whole thing every few months. Then have a great idea and jot down the ideas, which are all safely stored as drafts and nothing ever gets written. Ha!

Oh well. There are many things which I could discuss I guess, but instead of picking some specific, cultural thing, I suppose I will just philosophize randomly as usual.

Going “home” to the states for 2 months, it feels normal, or at least 8 weeks is long enough to make it feel normal again. And you know what’s nice, after the first awkward week of jumping every time an overly-friendly stranger initiates conversation/tries to make a sale, social interactions become normal and random exchanges with people I’ll never see again are not dominated by my own inner dialogue on grammar rules and cultural conventions. Oh God, that alone is sooooo relaxing. Not having to think while speaking. My German is fluent, but gosh darn it any unintentional falter, or foreign coloring is seen as a chance to ask nosy questions (well in Germany they are at any rate, double standard, I know, but things ARE different here) or discuss their love for American entertainment (good for you, I don’t care, I like German round robin discussions and documentaries, sorry if that’s disappointing). And you know what sometimes when I am grabbing lunch in the middle of my workday, I don’t want to rattle off my long and complicated life story in front of strangers.

Isn’t that ridiculous? I miss the stupid, meaningless small talk back home, but when I get the chance to do the same thing here, I reject it.

But that’s not the whole story. It’s a different culture and there are different dynamics at play than what people know in America. I am in possession of the most sought after Foreign Language in Europe/the world. And you can’t blame someone I suppose for wanting to get some English help for free. So while ensuring the my articles are all spot on, I also have to look for signs that this person is thinking they should make the switch to English (a conundrum, they are honestly trying to be HELPFUL but when you’ve been speaking German, albeit on and off, for 17 years now, it really ONLY comes off as condescending) and cut them off before they can do so (because when someone does achieve this, the blow to my self-confidence can last for the rest of the day), and finally if we do stick to German, I have to look for an out to the conversation in case they start suggesting that they would really like a language partner to help improve their English (first off 20 year old students are not who I really want to spend time with, tbh and another insult to my German, so thanks for your insensitivity).

I mean reading this I sound psychotic, not gonna lie. And I can be a basket case, if I sense that someone is not sure that I am competent in German. I am actually not nervous in most areas of my life, but I have this one, dumb exception. And people that are learning German look at me shocked that I would still have self-doubt despite completing a  Master’s program where I had half of my seminars, presentations, and papers in C2 German. But I do get negative feedback, that my German isn’t perfect, and sometimes just spiteful, ignorant comments from linguists who actually should know better.

It’s just something that I think we English speakers have to suffer from when learning a foreign language. Other Europeans learn 2 languages in the school and use languages as a tool and a way to play around and interact with their world. I try to do the same, but other people and situations won’t allow it because there are quite simply greater power dynamics at work.

Anyway language issues aside, even if people are speaking the same language, the cultural differences are there. My friend in England can’t stand discussing her personal background when it’s not relevant to the situation either. In Germany you have the lingua franca aspect in England, people like to make fun off differences that no one can help. Either way it’s a constant side-effect of living abroad,  so being somewhere, where all these concerns can just fall away is a huge weight off the shoulders. I did enjoy that part of my time home. I also enjoyed absorbing the new lingo around me, instead of going online to look up new words I see online. (True story, I did that for gif.)

And yet that much time in America only solidifies my decision to live abroad. I won’t get into anything I’ve already discussed many times with all of you in person. But I think the thing that I find troublesome about living where you grew up, is the complacency that almost inevitably comes with it. And I hear this from other expat friends too. I enjoy living somewhere I don’t belong, because I fear the complacency of life where the way things are, is equated with the way things should be. And instead of being general and imprecise, let me take my own wedding planning to show you what I mean.

I mean my goodness self-improvements are good up to a point. There’s no need to be pessimistic and defeatist, but we Americans take it to a whole new level. There is a whole boatload of messages and influence that we internalize everyday. Look at all the lists online, telling you 10 yoga stretches for good posture, 16 new ideas for your small office, 12 things to read before having kids, etc etc. And we click and click and read and read and subliminally the idea is, if you can just organize your life, just take these 3 simple steps, you will become a better person and have a life others can envy on social media. And people do go crazy with these preconceived ideas of how their life is “supposed” to go. I read ridiculous things online that in order for a girl to accept some man’s proposal, he has to obey her three rules, one of which is asking her dad (sorry Dad I love you, but I’m not property). And what will happen if he doesn’t? Will you throw the relationship away cause it didn’t go as planned? And in America this trend takes on what I can only describe as a religious fervor. This message is digested and internalized without a critical eye. The right amount of money to spend on an engagement ring, the right stone to symbolize love, the right stationary for invitations, the proper order of events at a wedding, engagement photos, wedding photos, the right cake to have, the right decorations to look good on instagram, gifts for having a baby, showers and showers and needlessly expensive bridemaids dresses, empty symbolism from our consumer culture. Symbols are good when they connect you to your culture and have meaning to the community; and there are plenty of Greek ones that I did have in the wedding, but the origins of many of our modern traditions are commercial, made up by advertisers. One may like some of these things and want to incorporate them when the time comes, but buying the “necessity” of having all these things in order for life’s events to be done correctly, seems to be a lie we Americans especially seem to enjoy swallowing.

Bucket lists in particular disgust me. I too have things I would like to do and see in my lifetime, don’t get me wrong. What is the message there though, that life is just one long list of check-lists to tick off one by one before kicking the bucket? That a life which can’t tick off a list of cookie cutter experiences and tourist attractions is worthless? People don’t waste time making lists, and just allow for life to happen, and your list of priorities to change as you grow. Some of the most magical moments in my life took place in the most mundane surroundings, and the most wonderful places I’ve lived in, or visited were rarely those where I had to elbow my way through tourists.

I like lists, don’t get me wrong and I want to see the world, and family and a career and try to have it all. I mean why the hell not. But being back at home, seeing people running around, just doing things “one should do” reminds me of the very arguments people use to mock those who follow religious teaching, i.e. believing what you have been told without any critical thought because you would like to control and interpret your own personal experience as unique and meaningful.

It makes me sad to see people deriving meaning about their lives from miss manners and bucket lists. And this trend is coming to Europe, most definitely, in the social media apps from America, in the lifestyle touted by Huffpo and the buzzfeed lifestyle articles. (I should talk another time about what has changed in Germany since 2005, cause there’s a lot which comes to mind.)

So during the wedding, I would get sucked into one aspect and then try and pull myself out of it. I like pretty things, so I wanted the room to be lit in a certain way and things a certain color and I wanted pretty flowers. That part was ok. But I had an idea about cheesecakes instead of a wedding cake that would make things look nice and still save money and it nearly grew out of control and had to be reigned in again because we were fussing about trying to please too many people, and “do the right thing”. There were definitely things I didn’t do, and things I was told later, I didn’t do right. Well who cares. One thing that made me laugh was that apparently I am supposed to ask people to give speeches about how great we are, (still not clear on this?) um, no… I already demand compliments from my husband, I won’t do the same of my friends. Or that I am supposed to thank my husband for marrying me! Ha fat chance! I might thank him if he had been the one to do the actual proposing. Look these traditions are ok, but doing something “wrong” doesn’t take away from how “good’ my wedding was.

My wedding was lovely. I was so thankful for all the love and help and support people had for us, but if I had focused on trying to impress the people who will see my pictures later, (who weren’t even there!) what a waste of the very short time I had been given to see nearly everyone I love in one room. That, and not the decorations, is what I get my happiness from and those memories will be a comfort in the inevitable lonely moments to come.

When you live abroad and you get messages from the country you live in, you can weigh each one, and say: “yes, an improvement, I’m willing to adapt it into my life” or you can reject things offhand, saying ‘not me, not my culture”. Absorbing junk is just not a thoughtless process here. And the extra bonus is when reading things from home, you can say, “well that doesn’t apply to me, because I can’t do that outside of America” or “well that’s silly, who would want to do that?”. But also “oh my gosh I wish I could visit these 12 steakhouses in my lifetime, but since that is a silly waste of time when I want to see my family, I will just plan one good steak dinner the next time we visit, and it will be ‘good enough’, because darn-it living without steak lowers your standards”. 🙂

When I got back to my beautiful, modern flat, and got to cook for my lovely husband and watch the pair of storks build their nest in the church across the street, I knew I was happy to be home, which just happened to be in Europe.

But a few weeks later, when the sun was shining and I took the train into town and went down into the city centre in between museums and churches and ancient buildings, with a cup of my favorite German coffee and bought bread that has been made the same way for some half a millennium, I wandered in the market looking at the beautiful flower stands, while eavesdropping on the French, Spanish and Russian tourists, and realized as I smelled the sausages stands cooking, I couldn’t wait to try out the new village butcher my husband and I had discovered. I knew then. Walking the miniscule little cobblestone alley towards the university, I realized that 10 years after I first discovered how lovely a life in Germany can be, this market setting can still bring a smile to my face and make all the troubles in my life seem a little further away.

My home is the bustle and sounds and smells of an ancient market square after a train ride, not the aisles of walmart and a parking lot.

Happy Thanksgiving in the new kitchen

Well wordpress you’ve done it again. I had a beautiful post written about the thanksgiving dinner I cooked for my friends last weekend and then as I pushed the button to publish everything disappeared here but the pictures. So is a post half a good as the one on this website not even 5 minutes ago.

The thesis is taking up all my waking hours, but I decided to take a break last Saturday to invite my friends to celebrate Thanksgiving with me in my new kitchen. This holiday is the one I regret being abroad for the most. And cooking just for two is no fun for me either.

 

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Here I am in the newly painted kitchen making the cranberry glaze. Please ignore my poor posture and empire waist dress. When you spend all day in the kitchen you should wear comfy things even if apparently they make you look much bigger from the side.  Thanksgiving is not a holiday for waistbands anyway. 😛

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Wonderful chive and garlic mashed potatoes, recipe here. Germans love chives and I do too, but I used fresh ones for the first time in mashed potatoes and I am never going back! This was the favorite of the night.

Next is brussel sprouts and bacon. It was hard to get the pan sear on these with my ceramic pan, as I haven’t gotten used to these yet, but they were delish.

The cast-iron skillet you see I used to make …

 

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Cornbread! it makes a delicious crusty edge. I can’t decide between these two recipes, one is soft and fluffy and the other is hearty and dense. In both cases though I put the skillet on the stove top and let the batter sizzle in.

Green bean casserole is next. This recipe calls for a skillet too, but I just used a casserole dish. I love, love love making this from scratch. My only complaint here is that my onions did not pick up much batter, but this was also a big hit. This is also the only green bean dish my husband requests and raves about.

Finally some stuffing. I found a recipe for a slow cooker with sage. After everything was in the pot, I ignored it until we were ready to eat. Perfect!

 

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 I found the best turkey recipe of my life and it will be my thanksgiving recipe forever.  There were a lot of sweet things in this recipe, which I am normally not a fan of, but I have to say that I had the juiciest turkey ever. I bought half a breast and 4 drumsticks and loved the short cooking time of 1 hour. I also left the turkey in the warm oven after cooking for about an hour and then panicked when I realized I had probably dried it out, but it was still succulent two days later. Absolutely amazing.

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Well in my lost version I talked all about Germans and pumpkins, but now I need to go to bed, so another time. Anyway my pumpkin is all from scratch and my pumpkin pie is with two cups of pumpkin but only half the condensed milk, and I guess now I prefer it less creamy.

 

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This is a pumpkin bunt cake and so, so moist. I loved this recipe, but hazelnuts were not the best, I would use pecans, walnuts or pistachios in the future like the recipe calls for. My dad asked if it’s like pumpkin bread but it was moister and sweeter I guess.

I also promised him that once I am home I will make him this sweet potato bourbon bunt cake and my recipe to bring a bit of thanksgiving to the house tomorrow is a pecan pumpkin cake.

So I rescued this entry.

And there you have it. Thanksgiving from scratch in the new kitchen. Hope you all have a wonderful time tomorrow with your loved ones!

 

Patience and Courage

The Greeks mention two qualities when life gets difficult: patience and courage (υπομονή & κουράγιο). If things are irritating and you are stressed and wish for a change in circumstances, your Greek friends and family will say one word to you: patience. Just this one word to console you that good things will come to those who wait. It’s almost a dumb platitude really, except instead of saying, everything will turn out alright, God has a plan, or generally promising things that might never come, they simply remind you that things will change with time.

If the situation is more drastic, if you are feeling beaten down by life, if you don’t know where a solution will come from, you will tell your friends you need to be given courage. And your friends will remind to have courage for the challenges of life. If you aren’t given courage, you will talk about having to find courage. It’s like a sort of keep your head/chin up encouragement in English.

I like the Greek though. They’ve stripped the response down to the bare minimum. There are no extra “empty” words. In life you need patience and courage, when the time comes where things don’t go smoothly you can remind each other of this fact. Of course it can come off empty and patronizing too. I am not naive. However, there is no need to find elegant phrases and there is no denying the value of these two traits.

Right now I need both to an extreme degree and I don’t know where to find them. I am exhausted. I can feel the tension in my face. My phantom pains in my heart have returned and moved to my ribs. I haven’t been able to walk properly to clear my head and get some exercise in over a month. I’ve gained weight and for the first time in my life am using food to comfort myself. I either sleep too much or too little. I can’t seem to clear my head and get started on my work. I feel like I’m driving and have been running out of gas little by little. I’ve been aware for some time of the impending situation, but still haven’t found any sort of solution. Right now my indicator says empty, but instead of being able to pull over somewhere and refuel, it’s like I’ve been asked to find another fuel source to use. I don’t know if it even exists, much less where to find out. I don’t know when the next form of relief will come. I’ve simply been asked to carry on driving without any guarantee for the future, with energy I don’t have. I am being asked to dig deeper than I have before. Even when I was 16 and lost the will to live, I didn’t dig this deep, I just ignored life, and slowly time changed things for the better.

Life comes with no guarantees. This is a great quote when things are going ok and your vacation plans fall through. This means something else when you watch the person you love fail to make headway, despite his many efforts. I can’t change the situation and it breaks my heart, because I don’t know a person more deserving of recognition for his situation and efforts. I don’t know anyone more fair and more loyal.And no matter how many ways I tell him that I am proud of him and all he’s done, until he proves it to himself with a job he is excited about, these words of mine don’t mean anything.

He had the chance for the job of his dreams and neither of us thought it would amount to anything at first, after two long months we unwisely got our hopes up and after they had sent a provisional copy of the contract to look over, they ended up not making a job offer, because apparently it would be too difficult for him to be trained for sales and the technical aspect at the same time. This is a cop-out, which might have happened because the guy sent to test his knowledge refused to warm up to him. My fiancee might not know exactly how these particular machines work, but he has a great head for technical things and he was WILLING to take on both and told that to the guy (who had been keen to hire him from the beginning and perhaps got overridden by the owner) on the phone while he was trying to let him down. It was a huge mistake for the company. No other guy can possibly be as motivated as he was to excel at that job. But that’s the thing: it might be in the end that despite all of our best efforts and supporting each other, that he ends up never being able to find a job where they treat him fairly, where he is excited to go to work everyday, where his boss and co-workers respect him.

I am not just reacting to this bit of bad news. I am reacting to 2 plus years of being without the best thing that has ever happened to me. I am reacting to how our expectations going into this situation 2 years ago have been totally annihilated, our dreams are slowly slipping away, I am reacting to the fact that there is no guarantee that this awful situation of being apart will end anytime soon.  There is no safety net here.

I don’t want to list all the things I hate, because I haven’t cried yet today and that will definitely bring the waterworks, but there are many. Basically EVERYTHING except my university classes and projects.

And I’m not afraid. At least not afraid of the future not turning out the way we envision it. After everything we’ve been through since June 2012 when we started carrying out the first steps of saying goodbye and the move, if we were going to break up, we would have already done it. That’s how tough these last few years have been. As long as we are a couple we can support each other and be happy, because, and I mean this in all seriousness, my fiancee is my joy. This is also something they say in Greek. Η χαρά μου.

I spent many years as a young adult meeting guys who thought I was the love of their lives and thinking the same about other guys who had no interest in me. But I always LIKED my own company, even preferred it to all but my closest friends most of the time. So I was more surprised than anyone how much joy he brought into my life: he brings out my positive side, the ability to laugh at myself sooner than I used to, to forgive myself for not being perfect, to give myself a night off and still be my biggest supporter when I chase after my goals. My life is definitively WORSE every day that we are not together. Don’t get me wrong, we fight and I am sure that after 5 years we will get on each other’s nerves like every married couple, but I am a better person with him, than without him. And the fact of the matter is if this forced separation turns out not to be worth it, I will regret it forever. If I die young, the only regret I would have, are these ridiculous painful, never-ending two plus years. We’ve no had a longer long-distant relationship, than a normal one.

The only reason I am not getting into my bed, pulling the covers over my head and bawling my eyes out to sappy movies, is because he doesn’t deserve a girlfriend who gives up.

Really not to be pessimistic, but the thing is I can’t guarantee anything, I can’t help him and I also can’t keep pursuing my goals and coming along while he stays in the same place. And if nothing changes I can’t fly out home and we can’t get married in February. If things stay the same, we might have to call off the church wedding indefinitely. Is that so bad? No, but it also means not being able to make any plans to SEE my family after so many years. It means enduring more of the unknown and being deprived of the company of those I miss. I am suffering more, in the sense that I am going through all of this out here alone and he gets to see his family and friends on a regular basis. And he KNOWS that with his head, but he has never felt that in his heart.

It was only supposed to be one year and then he was supposed to come, find any old job, move somehow closer than 4 hours away, and help take off the financial burden from my shoulders. And the last bit he has tried to do, even though we are both essentially living off our savings for anything beyond our basic needs. The financial stress was supposed to be temporary, but instead it has become a permanent fixture in my life. Every Euro that I spend on myself is money that I do not have for my future life, my retirement, paying off my student loans, our wedding, visiting my family and friends, starting our own family. It’s safe to say that I am not buying myself new things until my old things break down, but not being allowed to spend anything EVER after 2 years makes me want to tear my hair out. I’ve been wanting to move out from this stupid dorm room since the first day I moved in, but I simply can’t afford anywhere in this expensive city, much less a flat of my own.

Last week I lost it. Completely lost it. I tore apart my room. Threw out empty cardboard boxes, old clothes that I’d been keeping cause I can’t afford new ones, showed him my boxes and boxes of pans and dishes that have been taking up space, untouched for two years, waiting for the day I could move them into the place he found. I recited the prices of all the THINGS sitting in my room, crowding me out making me miserable, by constantly reminding me of the future that no one could guarantee me. I eventually figured that I have invested thousands of dollars in my dreams of a happy future together in Europe. We have been spending our present, waiting for the future, for a future that might never come. Then I listed all the things that I could have spent that money on that would have helped me enjoy the last two years more: seeing family, or friends, being able to afford going out more often with friends here, a better apartment etc etc. I moved things, I tore things up, I carried out load after load until this stupid tiny little room felt bigger.

I was naive. It serves me right. Cleaning out my room is literally the only thing I can do about my situation.

If I had known it would take so long, we could have gotten the legal marriage taken care of so that I could apply for some financial help, as a permanent resident of Europe. I would have planned things differently so that there could be some solutions.

Right now there are no solutions, except that he finds work and comes out here and somehow I convince myself not to stop working and get my papers and research done so that I eventually have a master’s degree. Then maybe if he still hasn’t found a job I will have to move back to Nbg to be with my husband and I will have spent the last 2 years unnecessarily suffering in my day to day life for a future that in the end didn’t show up. That is the ONLY thing I am afraid of and that my dear friends is that thing, which none of you can guarantee won’t happen.

I’m not sharing this to make anyone worried. I am sharing this because maybe there are others out there frustrated with the unfairness of life and sick of platitudes and I’m sharing this because there is no way to talk to any of you personally without breaking down in tears and I want to somehow communicate, how upset I am, without having to simultaneously keep it together.

Patience. Courage. I am trying.

Language Difficulty for English speakers: German Part 1

German has been my friend and fiend since I was 13 years old. The level of German I speak and understand is at about the highest level for a person who did not spend anytime before the age of 18 in the country. People will always be able to tell right off the bat that I am a non-native speaker due to my accent and the impression I make of non-nativeness through word choice, grammatical constructions, style inappropriate to the situation and correcting myself.  I’m ok with all that, because despite what other people would like to think about their own level of “nativeness” in a foreign language, I don’t see other people speaking English as a second language doing any better. In addition German has always been a struggle for me. Spanish was easy and fun; Greek had a difficult start, but once the ball got rolling, nothing could stop me; Russian was difficult, but I did well; and French the vocab was so easy I never had to study hard and the accent is so strong before you start learning the language that pronouncing things correctly was tons of fun. If anyone is going to hate on my German for being “sub-par” they should know out of all the languages I have attempted to learn, it has given me the most trouble and I am incredibly proud of becoming fluent in it.

German. It lulls you into a false sense of ease, saying, “look how similar all the vocab is to English, Come on you got this” And then the case system hits you. Der, die, das, den, dem, des. And the plural endings. Sometimes none, sometimes -s, sometimes an -n sometimes an -en, sometimes just a little umlaut in the middle of the word, sometimes an –e, sometimes an -er and sometimes the Germans can’t even decide what is right. Then once you’ve gotten on board with this whole ridiculous set of endings without (or at least, VERY little) rhyme or reason , you start to get excited that they sometimes repeat themselves. “Hey this isn’t so bad really”, der, den dem des Mann(-es) (man), die die der der Frau (woman), das das dem des Restaurant(-s) (obvi) and die die den der Häuser (houses). I don’t actually have to learn so  many “words” Half of the time I can say das and it’s correct and if I use dem when I know I need dative case then I don’t need to always be sure of the gender, as long as I know it’s not feminine. Oh my friend. IF ONLY they had a distinct word for each case, then you’d have to be extra careful about getting your grammar spot on from day one. It would save us English speakers a lot of errors.

The problem is, we native English speakers on a very primitive level do not get what all the fuss is about for having so many words for “the”. To me gender is a pretty lost cause, but it exists and I can deal with it pretty well. There are studies which show that people like me, (native English speakers fluent in a foreign language with gendered nouns) have the exact same brain set up when it comes to organizing our own repertoire of vocabulary as a native speaker does. When my brain goes to search for a word in German it automatically pulls up gender as well as all the words of the same gender are activated along with it. In real terms that means for my brain that I’ve got groups of words looking like this : bear, coat, ball, carpet, letter, fish; and toilet, air, rule, deed, fear, eternity, activity, butchers, beauty; and festival, secret, room, miracle, life, bed, eye, egg, witness. To you they have no commonality, but for me they are incredibly important otherwise, everything I would say would be wrong and irritating to anyone listening. The first group are all masculine nouns, the second feminine nouns and the last neuter in German.

Unlike a child who grows up in Germany I am conscious of this knowledge. I can trust my brain in a normal conversation and I get things right, but if I were to make decisions about grammaticality I would be using a part of my brain responsible for conscious decision-making, whereas a native speaker would do this more or less automatically. That is, they would use a different part of their brain and wouldn’t be aware of accessing the information they have stored. Which is why it’s hard for anybody to learn a second language as an adult. Even as a child, the younger you begin, the better your chances are that your brain will deal with syntax efficiently and unconsciously. Studies show even if you begin at age 10 and sound like a native speaker, the part of your brain responsible for syntax will not be the same as those who’ve learned it as a first language.  This might not have any real consequences in a person’s practical life, it’s just an interesting part about language learning. Certainly we adults have many advantages no one talks about: we can speed up the whole language learning process and are actually better at learning new vocab, since we have learning strategies at our disposal. (So don’t give up hope!)

At any rate German is a hard language simply because of its articles. You literally cannot utter a sentence without grasping information about the grammatical structure of what you are trying to say and if you learn a new word without the article you will have to stop the conversation to consult someone about its gender.  Not to mention that there are some “rules” about which gender a word falls into, but once you get beyond the basic core vocab this is not really much help.  Trust me as a native English speaker this seems like a huge waste of time. Remember how I said it would have been better to have separate words for each “the”. Look when I was 13 and started learning German, I thought it was cute that ever single noun was capitalized, like it was a VIP and was always accompanied by a friendly-looking der, die or das. But I did not LEARN these words together. I thought I did, I certainly tried. But at the time my brain didn’t see the no point.

Nowadays, I certainly do see that  it can tell you something helpful. I mean word order is pretty free, so technically they could put the object before the subject and say Den Hund frisst die Maus, meaning, the mouse ate the dog! But the thing is, they don’t, at least not with any amount of frequency to make it rewarding for me. Sometimes they make jokes with the articles like when they mean Euro the money instead of the Euro cup soccer tournament. If I get a joke based on an article I feel incredibly proud of myself. 🙂

Otherwise, let me just illustrate how my conversations (with German word order) go with my Greek boyfriend, who I usually speak German to.

Me: I saw today the Juliane!

BF: yes, what did you guys do?

Me: She wanted to me the, the the, what’s it called…

BF: contract

Me: yes, to me…. The, the or the? 

BF:  the. 

Me: yes, the contract give. 

These are conversations I have very often. I’d like to get it right every single time, but seeing as some verbs take accusative case and some dative and in the midst of a conversation I don’t feel like stopping everything in its track to discuss which version of “the” is correct, I have to live with, what to native speakers are very basic errors.

Somehow a and an are even more annoying.  They behave with different rules. It looks like this: ein, einen, einem (masc.); eine, eine, einer (fem.) and ein, ein, einem (neuter). This would all be fine I think if adjectives didn’t get in the way and wreak havoc. Adjectives seem to need a lot of attention in German. I have known these rules for years now and I would say that only this year, while having to write a lot more for university, have the adjective rules become engraved in my brain. See you can have an adjective without a “the/a” and then they have different endings and you can have one in-between the “the” and the noun and this has different endings and finally you get a third category of adjectives in-between a “a” and the noun with its own rules. And don’t forget all four cases! 😉

See German thinks it’s very clever, it really only wants to explicitly have the gender in the endings once. So whereas Russian and Greek are consistent in slapping the same ending on word classes so that you know its gender and case in all parts of the phrase, the Germans prefer efficiency.

Here are some telling examples of what I mean:

The dough is raw. (Der Teig ist roh). It’s unhealthy to eat raw dough (rohen Teig). But my raw dough (mein roher Teig) has no eggs. I will eat no raw dough. (keinen rohen Teig). He ate a bit from this raw dough. (von diesem rohen Teig). Or my favorite: Despite the raw dough, (Trotz des rohen Teigs/Teiges 2 options!) This last one is my favorite, despite the extra s to the noun cause it is easy and consistent, so I always remember the -en ending. Unfortunately it is the genitive case and dying out. If the Accusative case would just die out, I think I would make practically no errors, but no it’s the one I like and get.

Or my favorite strategy to avoid the whole thing: the dough, which is raw (der Teig, der roh ist)

Yeah have fun with that. I was just showing the three adjectives in the strong versus weak inflection with “a”, “the” and without an article. 15 years of learning now and these charts have finally become internalized and I can get these endings correct on the first go if I take my time.

My bf says it’s like watching a computer work and he imagines the charts flashing before my eyes when I am stuck in a sentence.  And it’s true. If you tell me I made a mistake in the last sentence, I can replay it and give you the correct answer in a matter of seconds. The problem is becoming fluent is just a matter of making your brain become accustomed to you speaking another language. It really boils down to a set of habits you’ve acquired. I have had to relearn all the rules for articles again and focus on the tricky ones, but I am still in the habit of saying many of them wrong.

This is infuriating for me, since I know it means I am making a worse impression when I open my mouth, then what I am actually capable of. I have come miles from where I was a year ago, but there is one thought which absolutely infuriates me.

And it’s this: all the German speakers I meet at university, who say things like this:

I saw the husband of my sister. 

I met her for 6 months (six months ago)

I wanted that she call

It is a man in the garden.

We are four people.

I would a coffee.  

I am looking forward to meet you.

I’ve seen Mary yesterday. 

Have you waited long?

In the society (no article needed!)

He found quickly the key.

Which are all wrong wrong wrong, awkward and not mistakes you make at a C level (university), get to look so smug and self-satisfied when they assume that the mistakes I am making are “easy”. Just because it’s a basic word which they devote no time to choosing, neither in German(automatic) nor in English. Like excuse me I have memorized thousands upon thousands of bits of, what are to me, totally useless information just so I can be here in your country communicating and you have the nerve to make me feel like crap about it. English is definitely easier in this sense.

But just because the inflection is easy doesn’t mean the language is and neither does it mean that you yourself speak competent English. English is deceptive somehow in the same way as German. People think it has “no grammar” since what they misunderstand as being grammar is in fact only inflection and only one small part of what linguists classify as belonging to the grammar of a language. I mean I lose my patience with the bf at times when he struggles to remember he/she/it need an s. I mean for goodness sake it’s one measly letter. But non native speakers can’t even get that in their head sometimes. So even saying the inflection is “easy” doesn’t mean speakers do it any more competently.

So German as an English speaker, which part sucks the most? The articles. I hope you’ve been able to see why. Next time I’ll write about the other, slightly less omnipresent aspects which are difficult when learning German.

Just some random thoughts on cold January night

I’m dying to keep writing about the language difficulties, but I don’t have enough time tonight and I wanted to get some things down here anyway. Next time.

I read something somewhere in the last few months and it’s stuck with me. Some quote from an author about how deep inside of these adult facades is a small, shy child who just wants attention and acceptance. Obviously I’ve done a poor job of paraphrasing an artist’s words, but nevertheless, bear with me.

It seems to me that when I look around me, the people in my life are ageless. My two year old nephew with his new tantrums and jealous fits, has the same needs and insecurities as my much older boss, who relishes telling his adorably lame jokes to the teaching department. Attention, acceptance/understanding & love. As I said, the more I look around , the more the wrinkles and the grey hairs, or the trendy clothes seem so irrelevant.

I’m not trying to be all kumbaya here. It’s seriously an odd feeling for me right now. I feel like I’ve been given a new set of eyes to see the child at the heart of things. Age seems so irrelevant. Are we really growing, or are we just learning how to hide our delicate inner-child from pain and rejection and censure?

Anyway that’s the extent of my philosophizing today.

The bf is back with his parents. His mom broke her leg and can’t really walk at all for the time being. It’s even odd for me to admit this, because I really like my space and doing things my way, but I am honestly so worried about his parents and what they will do when he moves out, that if I weren’t already 4 hours away, I would be making plans to get an apartment or residence where they could live with/near us. This is how Greek I’ve become. His dad gets so bored and lonely when the bf is gone. And when his mom isn’t feeling good, she could sit back without worrying so much about cleaning and cooking. Also I like eating together and speaking Greek and giving them some company and laughter. And they are too good to me. I know the bf worries too, but he’s been dying to move out for so long and knows my opinion about Greek men living with their parents, so I think I really blew his mind today when I mentioned this.

Who knew within 4 years my bf would take his independent American girlfriend and turn her into a sentimental overly-attached, typically Greek woman…. (or at least a good copy 😉 )

Right now there are two things: I don’t recognize the person I am right now. What are these emotions that get the better of me? Why don’t I care about socializing and what others think of me? Why am I so skeptical of people who want to get to know me? Why am I so awkward in my native language and so happy speaking Greek and German? The other thing is, I’m letting this all be, without judgment and self-criticism. This is the stage I’m in and I’ll get a handle on the situation soon enough. There’s is no point in hurrying it, or deciding what is “wrong” before I understand why it occurs.

I did some networking tonight at my work (late) Christmas dinner. It was necessary and awkward, but it was good practice and I kept my mouth shut and listened. I didn’t force conversation and I learned some things. And whatever people think of me, is none of my business and not going to help me reach my goals.

I just need to extend this mentality to my attitude towards speaking foreign languages. I still struggle with coping with the discouragement and feedback, stemming from what I am convinced, is my status as a native English speaker and my tangible insecurity.

So the bf left today and I got lots of university work done and went to this dinner to keep my emotions at bay. It took so long this time to get back into the nice habits of how our relationship was in Nbg, back when all the boring daily chores made me realize how lucky I was. You make new habits being alone for 2 months. Even the wrong tone of voice can lead to hurt feelings and miscommunication. What sucks the most is that every time we see each other, we have to work at getting back to this level. But nonetheless, getting it back for Christmas break was still the best present I could ask for.

My bf isn’t full of romantic gestures. Doing the dishes, picking up dinner when I’ve had a long day, arranging things the way he knows I like it, making me watch football and take a study break, telling me how  good dinner was, these are the I-love-yous that can’t be said over a phone, that make me feel important and special in this world, that make me feel like a spoiled child, even without money, full-time jobs, wedding plans, our families, a place to call our own.

Maybe we are all just big kids after all. I’m not afraid of going after any of my goals but without him I feel shy and unable to share myself with others. Even when I want to and I know it’s for the best.

How difficult is it to become fluent in a language? Intro

My masters program is halfway over. What’s nice is that not only have I realized that it’s definitely the right program which aligns my passion and skills, but I’ve also learned an amazing amount of fascinating theories and research projects, as well as being able to restudy the languages that interest me: Greek, French and Russian. On top of that, after a seven year break, I’ve been forced to re-utilize university level German and challenge myself to face my shortcomings and express myself orally and in writing at a higher level. In one year my German has definitely made some improvements and that was quite shocking after plateauing for about 5 years.

However I’ve also faced a lot of myths and delusions about foreign language learning and what it means to be multilingual. My mistakes in German have been pointed out when I’m just going about my day-to-day business, my intelligence has been in-explicitly called into question and instead of focusing on my ideas, I’ve had people only focus on my language deficiencies. As a former English teacher, I know exactly the type of mistakes certain speakers make and the certain trip-ups the English language provides. I listen to good English all day long, but it comes with plenty of mistakes and lacking the subtly and expressiveness of native speakers. I recognize that I, as a person choosing to live in Germany, am and should be held to a higher standard when it comes to my German, but at the same time, as an English teacher mistakes are noticeable to me, when others might just let them slide and I definitely know that I speak “international” or what I call “teacher English” a majority of the time. I also have been so fed up with the delusions of Europeans who believe that they speak English as well as a native speaker, that I once gave a presentation at a super fast pace, with the English which would be expected in college and had the satisfaction of seeing my classmates semi-stunned in silence and not daring to ask much, lest they be called out for not comprehending something.

I do not feel like it is my job to rob someone of their delusions, but to me, there are two types of people in the world: those who are relaxed about languages, focusing on communicating and sharing, rather than exactly what is being said and those who assume all mistakes can be avoided and reflect innate intelligence or effort (read: prescriptivists). Both groups can include linguists, as well as those who have learned foreign languages as an adult. In the first group they would be cognizant of their mistakes and accepting of those of others. In the second group they assume their foreign language skills are excellent and hold everyone to the same standard regardless of what unique native language and foreign language relationship they are coming from. We Americans, and English speakers in general, generally fall into the first group. We only speak one language and tend to be forgiving of foreigners who speak English with us. (Too forgiving if you ask me, but more on that later). The most dangerous though are those who speak only one language fluently but hold everyone to the impossible standards of perfection.  These people have often been taught a foreign language in school, but failed to make the most difficult transition from beginner to fluent. Thus, they feel even more qualified to judge the deficiencies of others, having convinced themselves there’s nothing more to language than memorizing lots of vocab and that their not following through is in no way a reflection of themselves, but simply a lack of time etc. etc.; clearly if they did want to speak it, they would do so at the highest level. Since being at university I have made instant judgment calls about who I am willing to spend time with. If I meet anyone who falls into the second category, I make absolutely no effort in being friendly. Not because I am a horrible person mind you, but because these type of people generally see me not as a person, but rather, a means to  improving or increasing their opportunity to use English for free. As soon as someone sees me as a language tool, I check out of the situation.

Ah the trials and tribulations of being a native speaker of the world’s lingua franca abroad. Make no mistake, it is a good problem to have. But to be fair, it is my job and no one wants to have to be reminded of their job every waking hour of their life.

People approach language like everything in life, from their experience. I am going to be writing my master thesis about language politics and multilingualism in Europe. There is a huge problem in Europe of wanting to preserve linguistic variety, but unfortunately the people working in Brussels don’t usually include people who grew up in multilingual settings, with family members who had often imperfectly learned the language of the country as immigrants. The majority of Euro-crats at most had a dialect and a standard version to keep apart. If they did grow up multilingual it was probably two “large languages” like a German mom and a French dad, and they went to an English school, i.e. the focus was on a high university level standard. While this in and of itself is a good thing, it does not reflect the multilingual experience of many of Europe’s citizens. This means smaller languages (from minorities from Europe or immigrants outside of it) are neglected and not factored into the discussion of Europe’s language goals. And this in turn is what I encounter. People who have started learning English in grade school and then picked up another language in high school, have never been exposed to the multilingualism that exists all around them with minorities. Which in turn means their concept of multilingualism is very narrow. For them it means getting to a good level of an important world language, from a young age, learning another one if they enjoy it, while it’s easy and nothing complicated like life and feeding a family get in the way, which in turn means they are convinced that being multilingual means speaking two languages at more or less equal levels of competence is the norm and anything less than that is “bad” language use. I mean no wonder they can’t admit to themselves later that their English is not actually as good as they were led to believe it is! That would immediately invoke images of migrants in lower social classes who even if they are bilingual are constantly accused of either not being fluent enough in their native language (i.e. reading and writing skills aren’t as good as other citizens in the countries they come from) or speaking a bastardized form of the national language.

One thing is clear: elites bilingualism in two big languages = good, well-educated, but bilingual minorities = low intelligence, inadequacy, possible identity confusion.

This is all very laughable when you consider that language is a very democratic thing. It comes from the lower-classes and goes up, not the other way around. Why on earth do you think Greece elites fought unsuccessfully for over 100 years to try and make the masses speak something resembling ancient Greek, rather than the language they learned from their families? Many good things came out of it in the end, but their mission was by no means a success.

Here something funny for us English speakers. Does anything sound more posh than the southern London way of saying the word hot or the way people have dropped the r at the end of water? Yes we Americans think that sounds very refined, very chic. Well my friends that originated from the lower classes right around the industrial revolution. So the prostitutes and criminals in a Dickens novel started using these first. How does that make you feel? Wait until 200 years from now, when the monarchy (if it still exists) has substituted bottle for bo*el. A glottal stop no longer stigmatized, but the norm, imagine!

So I thought, since we have such funny ideas about language, especially about how difficult languages are, I would write from a native English perspective and provide examples of the easy and difficult thing about each language I am learning, instead of just providing a blanket statement about how it depends on where you are coming from and what you individually find hard. Maybe this will be useful for other language learners out there.

I would also like to have an outlet for the delusional nonsense I sometimes have to put up with as an English speaker in Europe. I think I talk about it too much, so I’ll just stick it here and have my say, once and for all.

Part 1: German will be next 🙂

Things I’d like to have in my life again.

Funny thing I noticed recently. My post about the German stare is generating quite a bit of traffic. In fact it pops up on the first page of a google search. It has been shared at least 10 times on facebook. Now I even have an ad down at the bottom of the page. So I made it private. What’s the point of a blog? To help people, to connect to people. But I think it’s a weird feeling to have a constant stream of people visiting this entry you’ve written and not interacting. Upwards of 500 hits and not one like. That is weird. Like ghost stalkers. I’d like to share my life and I understand a blog enables strangers to view it, but I just find this weird. It’s like my old fb account where I had really old school chums looking at my pics but never interacting with me. I speak personally with my family and friends about the things I write here. Having no interaction with strangers who visit and then watching that number grow, to me it’s just exactly how technology makes us more isolated instead of bringing us together. So for now I’ve made it private.

That being said I don’t have much to say. At least I don’t feel like saying a lot will help anything. University has started again my classes are very interesting. The bf and I will see each other again in 5/6 weeks. So I am a robot, working, sleeping, studying, eating, waiting, and saving money.

What can I say? There’s no point in going into details. It won’t change anything. Instead I will list all the things missing from my life, that I have to deal with living in the dorms and alone that I used to take for granted and am looking forward to regaining, whenever that may be.

1. A washing machine.  Just did the laundry today. It costs two euros a load. For whatever reason the clothes never seem to get clean. Maybe it’s cause I wait until my clothes are really dirty so the stains have a long time to set. But I don’t know. I washed some stuff and my boyfriend’s parents house and everything came out spic and span and smelling wonderful. I use fabric softener, stain remover, detergent and anti-bacterial detergent and it comes out dirty and smelling like wet clothes. I can’t wait for my own washing machine again. Probably the costs will be the same, but I just want to do a wash whenever I feel like it.

2. A bathtub. My bathroom is great. It’s small and a breeze to clean, but two weeks ago when I was achy from a cold, the closest thing I could get to relief was a hot water bottle. I don’t pay a water bill and the water pressure is really high, so at least there’s that. But oh a bathtub will be a must in the next place.

3. A full size fridge. I’ve never in my adult life, post-college had a full-sized fridge. Right now I’ve got the middle shelf a veggie crisper and enough freezer space for a frozen pizza. I eat what I buy, but have to go grocery shopping frequently and use up anything that takes up space before I’m ready to. I miss buying things in bulk, when they’re on sale or in season. Oh well.

4. Along those same lines: a kitchen to call my own. Now I’m lucky, we actually do have more than enough space for two normal students. We’ve got 4 burners for two people, but I’ve only got a few dishes in the cabinet and my spices and root vegetables have to be stored in my room. And when one of us does the washing up after a big dinner, the plates take up most of the surface area.

5. Living with someone with a functioning nose. 4 roommates since I moved in last September and all but one had no sense of smell. I’ve basically taken out the trash for two people since then. I came in this week and nearly gagged at the recycling (old meat packaging) My roommate who was home all day did not seem that bothered. Dear God, deliver me from this quickly.

6. Storage space. I thought living in one room would be a temporary situation I could deal with for one year. Now with no end in sight, I fantasize about cellar space.

7. A living room/office. See above.

8. Shelves. Most of my books are boxed up and in Nbg but the one I have here are stacked up every which way on the one shelf and the rest take up most of the space on my table. That’s an important reason I bought a tablet, why pay to print out all the readings when they will just add to the space issue I’ve barely got a handle on.

9. My mattress. I spent a lot of my money on my wonderful mattress. Had I known I would have to do without it for so long, I don’t know if I would have gone to study when I did. I’m being serious. Or at least I would have considered buying a new one. I’m dealing with serious back pain right now and because I know nothing about what will happen this year I can’t decide if buying a new one will be worth it or not.

10. A tv. I’ve got more important things to do right now, but I miss all the great news channels and documentaries on German tv. I’m neither a snob nor a couch potato. The one thing I enjoy is turning it on when I am doing my cleaning up on the weekend. I watch stuff online so this one is ok.

11. Money.

12. The boyfriend. We are entering the 13th month of our long distance relationship. If I had known this in advance I might have waited another year to start this. No end in sight. Which brings me to the last thing missing from my life:

13. Patience. I’ve got none. It’s run out. So I will just carry on studying and focusing on the one thing I can influence, my grades and my work at the uni and ignore everything else.

I am the worst blogger ever: 28 reasons life is good

Today I am feeling brilliant. So I thought in between getting my final essay written, I’d write a positive blog post. The blog is definitely one-sided, but what can I say: writing about the negatives helps me to let it all go. But considering that I turned 28 last week, I thought I’d put up a more visual post about all the things in my life that I love right now.

This guy!

1.This guy!

Being with someone I honestly do not deserve. He expects the best from me and isn’t intimidated by my perfectionism and ambition, but calls me out when I get too stressed out. He makes me laugh all the time and he is a very grateful recipient of all my culinary attempts.

My Family!

2.My Family!

We need some new pics, this is old but I love it enough to share anyway. Being abroad and having the support of my family is very important. I’m very lucky to have a family that understands my crazy wanderlust.

Going to see my GREEK family

3.Going to see my GREEK family

You can read about how I feel about my Greek life here and here.  2013 is the year of Greece. Crete, Corfu, Rhodos & Katerini/Thessaloniki. It’s such a horrible life, right? I need to visit a conference for my masters program and I decided that I’d prefer the cheaper option in Rhodes which really interests me and where I might be able to make some good contacts in the field, rather than going to one which doesn’t interest me, just cause it’s free, or one that does but cost 10 times as much! So I decided rather than a quick layover I’d extend my trip to visit these crazy kids, aka my Greek family.  I can’t even describe the joy I am feeling right now 😀 especially since I don’t know when I can afford to visit my fam in the states again. It does the soul good to visit places where you belong.

My summer in the Schwarzwald.

4. My summer in the Schwarzwald.

The bf got mad at me since, I told him it was my best summer in Germany ever. And he somehow missed the Germany part and started defending Greece. Ha, dork. But seriously this summer has been amazing. One of the best of my life and this from a girl who has spent many a summer in Greece. It is seriously beautiful here. Even my cynical bf has to admit that he is looking forward to living somewhere where other people come for summer vacation.

5. Becoming Miss Ami again.

5. Becoming Miss Ami again.

Starting Monday I am taking the reigns of a classroom again for two weeks. I get to teach two groups of kiddos for a summer academy. It’s like summer school but with all the focus being on fun and speaking. Sign me up. There were a few hiccups with the situation which really got me down and I nearly gave it up twice, but I’m proud of myself for sticking it out and not taking anything personally. Now that things have settled down I am really looking forward to goofing around with little kids and the exhausting high that comes with being really present in their little lives for an extended period of time. Not to mention the person in charge and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to teaching, which is rarer than you’d think. I am more optimistic than usual about this collaboration and she is too and these sort of challenges, to live up to someone’s positive expectations, are what I live for. 😀

6. My work with the university.

6. My work with the university.

Did I mention I am working for the English department as a research assistant? It’s been such a good chance and allowed me to get away from the waiting tables to make ends meet. It’s not much money but it’s a start and the work is more rewarding. In the fall I will start giving a tutorial about doing linguistics for bachelor students. I am a bit terrified at the responsibility but up for the new challenge. Career-wise things are looking good, even if I am currently in debt to my savings.

7. Affordable housing.

7. Affordable housing.

Now to be perfectly honest I’d really like to be living in a bigger space right now and the kids partying in the summer is driving me up the wall and my ever changing roommate situation means just as soon as I get used to the new teenager’s bad habits, I get sent another one. But I have to be brutally honest right now: getting into the student dorms ain’t easy and if I hadn’t gotten in, I’d have already run out of money right now. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that huge monthly sums make budgeting nearly pointless. I may not be able to work on my student debt right now, or get any help from the state, but affordable housing is enabling me to follow my dreams and so I am willing to accept the drawbacks that come with it.

8. Getting in shape

8. Getting in shape

Ok bear with me. I am trying to use my own pictures and I don’t tend to take any while I am working out. This was from my birthday when I feeling a bit ill, but nonetheless I’ll just use it as a recent example. I was worried that when I started studying I would sit around all day, which I definitely do, but I also have been hiking more, working out more and generally being more active because the weather has been nicer. I also eat at more regular hours and not just stuff myself twice a day, cause I’ve got 4-6 hours of work back-to-back. For once in my life I don’t have any goals to lose weight. I just enjoy being healthy and strong and I wish I could pass on this is feeling to all my family and friends.

9. My mad Greek skills

9. My mad Greek skills (which come in handy when ordering my favorite food!)

So while I’m not there yet, my Greek is getting to the final stages of achieving spoken fluency. I suppose it will always be a life-long journey. Any language is. This used to dishearten me so much that at one point I gave up on all of them. Nowadays I’m able to ignore popular ideas of what speaking a language mean and just put in the work, day after day, and enjoy where the road to fluency takes me. With Greek I am (too) thorough, because I want to speak it well. With French for example, I am simply happy to speak whatever string of poor sentences I can manage. So saying that my Greek is good, is a big step. I am still wrestling with the aspects of verbs, since just when I think I’ve gotten the hang of it, the bf tells me a certain action done repeatedly is still spoken of with the one-off aspect (well language nerds you will get this, if no one else). Overall though, I can pretty much say anything that I’d like to say and almost always grammatically correct. It still doesn’t always flow off my tongue or makes use of the best, or most idiomatic vocab, but I am enjoying this stage too and while I’d like to improve quickly, I am a bit more relaxed, because I am certain now that I will get there in the end.

10. the Bf's family

10. the Bf’s family

Ok I’m not always sure they understand how my bf got himself an exotic American girlfriend, but his parents and his sis and bro and their families have been so welcoming.  I’ve enjoyed getting to know them and look forward to meeting up with them when I’m in town. They also both have little ones who I adore and get to buy little baby gifts for and who scream ‘aunt’ at me excitedly when they get to see me. It’s nice to feel like I have family in Germany.

11.My bestie

11.My bestie

I never feel too alone as an expat here, because I have someone here with the exact same outlook and experience as I do. I grateful that her job keeps sending her over to Germany and that both of us know how to keep in touch despite the distance. We see each other about twice a year and every time we skype it just erases all my doubts and make me feel up for another week of challenges.

12. Close friends, close by.

12. Close friends, close by.

This picture is from 2006. My very much new friends (one from England and one from Germany) at the time just met for the first time at the beer festival. And who would have thought that in 2012 I’d move to a place where I’d be a couple hours away from them both. (Even closer than my bf!) Life is funny and unpredictable. I love that despite all my wandering I still end up close to people I care about. I have found great friends, where the time between seeing each other is totally irrelevant to our friendship. We always just pick it up again.

10. Having time to knit

13. Having time to knit

and also just time for myself. In my three years in Nbg I did many things, but there were many things I didn’t have time for, or even when/if I did it just was so far back on the list in terms of importance that I never got to it. Knitting I did on occasion, but things like improving my language skills or going hiking on the weekend, I never had time for. I really enjoy having all this free time again. This will probably be the last time in my life, for a long time where I will have so much flexibility in my schedule. I know it is a total luxury and believe me, I’m not taking it for granted.

14. New Uni friends

14. New Uni friends

I haven’t been investing a lot of time in this. At least not in gaining as many as possible. But slowly making friends makes that even more amazing. People constantly surprise me and those in my program have turned out to be pretty deep, sweet girls that are fun to hang out with. I’ve also made one nice Greek friend here that I am giving lessons too and that is also important.

15. Being right next door to France

15. Being right next door to France

Come on it’s Germany’s more run-down romantic neighbor. I’m literally a 15 minute highway drive to the border. I can run over there for some grocery shopping. You can’t argue with that!

16. Grandma gets skype!

16. Grandma gets skype!

Mom is visiting Indy and then she’ll set-up Grandma’s computer so I can skype with her. I don’t have a landline here, so I couldn’t call her up cheaply. But now! For that matter my Aunt has skype now too, so yet another loved one to video chat with.

So that’s enough of the pics that I have to match my list. You’ll have to just live with the unillustrated rest.

17.  Keeping touch with my pupils. I get their news and chat a little online and it’s nice to know that with a little bit of my effort we can find a nice way to stay in touch.

18. Catching up on my reading. Semester break + american library = a happy bookworm.

19. Figuring out what my masters thesis will be about. It’s not set in stone yet, but things are coming together and I feel good about it.

20. The bf’s positive attitude towards the job search. Because it’s been a tough ride and we both weren’t so sure many times if we’d make it. Now it feels like with a little bit more patience we’ll be that much more closer.

21. Being almost done with my first two essays and a promising schedule next semester. One more project to go and then my first year will be over. And that my friends is worth celebrating

22. Knowing that standing up for myself doesn’t make me a bad person. I can say no to demands made of me and I know how to compartmentalize aspects of my life and I have Germany and the tough times to thank for that.

23. Just all the sun I see in Freiburg. My hair has highlights and I’ve got a nice light color, from not even sunbathing and always wearing sunscreen. I think it is often responsible for my cheery moods.

24. All of the amazing things I’ve learned this year, the debates I’ve had and the down-to-earth people who have more than made up for the snobby elitists you can never avoid. I’ve loved all my classes and it has definitely been the right decision for me.

25. The friendly people I’ve met in Freiburg and in this state. While they aren’t exactly American style friendly right off  the bat, people here are more open to conversations with strangers and I am trying to bring myself out of my Nbg shell and projecting the friendliness I want to see back. It seems to be more possible here.

26. All the happy thoughts and dreams I have for my future. Because they won’t come true so I should enjoy them now, but I still think me and the bf have a lot of really seriously happy moments in front of us.

27. To use the German term angekommen, which means ‘to have arrived’. It’s like saying I’ve a arrived, but a little more cosy. Meaning that you’ve made yourself a home and have found a place in the world, not just reached your goals. I’m not there yet, but the chances of us both succeeding at this ambitious project and being happy here is starting to become a real possibility.

28. Being 28 and feeling so grateful for all that life has given me so far. Time on this earth isn’t something to be taken for granted. I am blessed.

What being an expat really means.

The funny thing about being an expat means that people in your country of choice have false misconceptions about you, as do people back home. On a certain level, my life is exotic, in that this culture I am living in is, and will forever be at least to some extent, foreign to me and certainly foreign to my friends and family at home. Exotic things certainly have their attraction. Why else do people like accents so much or want to travel? And when things get rough, I walk around the pedestrian zone of the medieval city center, look at all the street cafes and think, yep I sure prefer this to automobiles and fast food. Because with little money, I can do something relatively good for myself. I can walk around outdoors, look at the shop windows and spend 3 Euros for a coffee and watch people.

Certainly in the states, one can do the exact same thing, but life without a car, not very feasible, and once you’ve bought that car you take it no matter the distance. There was a survey of how far people are willing to walk on a given day and the average for Americans was about half that of Europeans. Another thing, a few years back, I remember going to a cafe with an old friend visiting me for the day and the chairs were turned to look at the street not at each other and my friend got very upset that I was looking at people, not at her. Certainly I suppose it was bad manners, but I remember being so flabbergasted, like why would we even go to a cafe it not to watch people? I was literally speechless, I turned my chair towards her for the rest of the conversation and she was really a dear friend that I hadn’t seen in ages, but I still remember thinking to myself she didn’t understand European cafe culture whatsoever and I felt like I had to repress my European self to make her happy.

So yes there is something exotic about living here that changes you. I learn something new almost every day. I think that I know how things work, how things are pronounced etc and then suddenly find out I was mistaken or learn an extra detail. That’s the part of life abroad that I have to say makes things the most interesting. Even when it’s something stupid like one word, I just like being surprised on an everyday basis. When you are in your own culture you don’t actively think about the whys and hows, you just roll with it. If anything is surprising, I would say it barely registers, cause somehow you’ve unconsciously picked up on it. That’s what’s different about being an expat. Being fluent in a language does not mean you are fluent in the culture as well.

I don’t have a 6th sense when it comes to language and culture. I might say sentences that are grammatically correct. They might be using words and collocations that fit together but they might not be appropriate for the situation. Or I do everything culturally right, but because I am nervous my words don’t come together the way I like, and even though this can happen to native speakers in their own language too, I will get inordinate amounts of attention for my perceived “language incompetence”.  I am proud to say when it comes to the genders of words in German, I am able to trust my gut. My brain has latched onto the gender of words unconsciously, but when my active brain tries to inflect it for case, that’s when it pops out wrong. Anyway the basics of cultural interactions I can even get right. Sometimes I even prefer the German preferences I know, for the weird dynamics of international interactions, where not knowing what to do and being so de-Americanized in my social habits that I feel completely at a loss and awkward.

But before you go assuming things are black and white here, I’m not saying I prefer German cultural norms either. Going to parties, with couples or alone, or going out grilling with all these weird rules about what you can share and what to bring on your own, or how everything has to be explicitly stated, which no one would dream of saying in an English speaking culture. All these things make me feel very very awkward too. But at least it is an awkwardness that I’ve come to expect and no longer feel obliged to “fix”. When I miss the openness the sharing, the friendliness, the “mi casa es su casa” concept, I go hang out with the Greeks here, and when the chaos and loudness is too much for me, I seek out my quiet orderly Germans spaces and friends.

So is my life exotic? Sure I mean there’s no way around it. Didn’t I just write about jumping in and out of cultures on a whim?  I am an American living, what I guess isn’t an American life. Do I miss American culture? As the Germans say “jein” (Ja=yes, nein=no). Do I miss cars, the junk labeled food, everybody being told how best to market themselves? You know the answer. Do I miss being able to exist without thinking about the meaning behind my word choice and smiling at strangers, without being considered crazy/stupid or a creeper? Hell ya.

If I continue to live here I will never fit in, and that can be good and bad. Bad because when you are busy going about your life in a place you’ve been living in for 4 years, you don’t really have the patience or desire to stop what you are doing and discuss America, just cause someone notices your accent. While you can understand their curiosity, the problem is I don’t know who they are/if they are trying to pick me up/befriend me just because I am American/can help them with your English or are just genuinely being friendly and I’m too jaded to recognize it…. It is tiring being treated like a UFO, by strangers who you can’t take seriously enough to trust.

On the other hand it can be good too, because this culture isn’t my own and I’m ok with that. I won’t be lulled into a false sense of complacency and accept things at face value.

So now I’ll come to something that many of you don’t want to hear: the real work that my life here demands of me. If you would prefer me not to spoil your illusions about what living abroad means, I suggest you stop here. It mostly has to do with money and it ain’t pretty.

Ready? Ok.

Let me put it this way before continuing: If you think you can survive abroad, ask yourself this question: are you willing and prepared to do everything twice? Are you willing to check up on every financial situation affecting you, to make sure people have done their job correctly? Are you willing to put in the legwork and time, so that things get sorted out so that you aren’t faced with fines and penalties from two countries? Are you prepared not to give up when paid government officials lie to you about what can and cannot be done? Are you prepared to call their bluff and be a bitch to get what you need? Are you prepared to tell government officials and accountants that even though you may look dumb and naive you know the rules and they are wrong? And not because you find these rules fascinating mind you, but because it is about your money and you have to know!  Are you prepared for the possibility of bawling your eyes out in an accountant’s office because they lied to you about how much money you would save and now you have to take a chunk out of your savings cause you lived in apartment with no closed-off rooms so you can’t write off a home office? Are you prepared to harass your landlord to pay your down payment back, when he ignores the legal time limit he wrote in his own contract? Are you prepared to bitch out corporate loan drones on the phone when they try to make you feel bad for deferring your loan payments, like some irresponsible freeloader, then slowly explain that you don’t live in the country and their policies have left you with no other choice? Are you prepared to pay an extra hundred Euros for a visa extension, not once but three times, because even though YOU have done all that you feasibly can in a timely manner, they won’t be bothered about it cause they are going on vacation, and you can’t stay legally without one? Are you willing to spend over 1000 Euros every time you want to visit your family (and that’s cheap!)? Are you willing to listen to idiots telling you can’t be right, cause other people aren’t having problems, when you know the reason other people aren’t having problems is because they don’t speak any German and are completely ignorant or purposely choose to ignore things freelance taxes which will cost them thousands of Euros down the road, but only if they are caught?

Bear with me this story will get happier, but it isn’t done yet.

I do everything twice. Everything I think is done and dusted comes back to bite me in the ass. I’m so sick of it. I’ve been feeling so frustrated, so helpless. I quit my waitressing job, got a job at the Uni, it’s brilliant and it will continue to grow and channel me into new opportunities. But it’s not a lot of money. Then I find out the secretary misunderstood the timing of these two jobs and registered me in the false tax bracket, so I missed out of 80 Euros that I very much need right now. I emailed her to get it corrected, but she didn’t understand it, just directed me to get my envelopes with my pay slip. So the stupid tax office here even got my religion wrong, which I’m obligated to give to the tax office, otherwise, as is my case, they will collect taxes for the evangelical and catholic churches. I then had to go in person to the office and have them correct it all, pick up a new slip and deliver it back to her. The guy in the tax office was nice, but he also informed me that the money wrongly taxed from my 400 Euro paycheck I cannot get back until the end of the year. Bollocks. Oh yeah and that if I do the teaching job I was planning on, I will have to register myself as self-employed/freelance. But he also mentioned my work was obligated to cover my health insurance.

Well upset and still poor, I ask the secretary about more insurance, cue misunderstanding, cause of the damn accommodating Germans in the English department.(Since then I’ve made a point of switching to German). She sends a prompt email about talking to some woman about it. So off I go again, to another bureau to another bureaucrat, who tells me I am mistaken and there’s no insurance for students. I tell her the tax office said all these types of (400 Euro) jobs require the employer to insure their employees she goes off about something not on topic and I leave, upset because I never understand when the answer is no. I know that Germans don’t even understand what they are telling me. And I’m sick of listening to bullshit from people who haven’t heard me speak enough German to believe I can understand the complexities of their ridiculous laws. I am insured btw, it just would have saved me 40 Euros and taken some pressure off me this summer.

Next I write the woman who’d offered me a really great chance to teach 11 year olds for a summer academy to let her know that if I have work freelance I can’t take the job. Why you ask?  Because working freelance is the most ridiculous complicated stupid thing you can do as a foreigner in Germany. Tons of people are doing it, and at least half of them are doing it wrong and most of those are doing it wrong on purpose.

If you work freelance and you are over your 3rd year, where you are still considered building your business, you had better be making shitloads of money or practically none at all. You cannot go to a regular accountant for 80 Euros to look at your receipts understand your situation and file some basic taxes. The tax account Germany has decided the self-employed are allowed to visit will charge you 500 Euros to do a taxes, even after agreeing on 100-200. These are basic taxes for around 20,000 or so of “profit” for your year. You cannot do what other freelancers do, and increase your profit margin etc, all you can do is work more hours and there is a natural limit to that. If you work as a paid employee, you cannot file those taxes separately with a cheap accountant but you have to file them with your self-employed earnings. Most importantly you cannot get any legal advice, and as you are technically considered a German business, potentially a rich one, you will most definitely need legal advice to cover all your tracks here.

My boyfriend and I joke all the time that I have been doing a three year training course to become an accountant. I have had to research and find out all tax and legal advice in a foreign language, many times from people who turned out not to be trustworthy. For the latter two years of my teaching all I wanted was for the freelance nightmare to end. So I wrote this woman and told her under no uncertain terms was I going to inflict this on the first year of my entire stay in Germany after waiting so long and shedding so many tears. And that there had to be some sort of solution as I was a student and it was just two weeks of summer courses. She responded kindly, but was ignorant about it and tried to tell me none of her other teachers have this problem.

The last point is the most frustrating. Many English speakers here in German teaching English do not pay any or all required taxes. This is a pretty ok method if you are planning on leaving Germany in the near future. Some are genuinely ignorant of how much they need to pay. Not speaking the language they miss out on some finer points. Even with speaking the language I overlooked taxes. There’s no how-to for freelance English teaching in Germany. Most people find out from their friends and acquaintances. Many people don’t want to find out. The problem is in Germany ignorance is not bliss. Unwissenheit schützt vor Strafe nicht, as the Germans say. In a culture where you are required to stay informed on your rights and obligations, not knowing means when they catch you, it’s your own fault. People ride in the ubahn without buying a ticket, but whenever they get caught, the whole train enjoys a moment of schadenfreude cause everyone knows the rules and when you flaunt them, you are bound to, and should get caught.

So do I know that most native speakers don’t know what’s up? Yeah, trust me I randomly saw an acquaintance today, asked her about her freelance gigs and taxes, and she proudly told me without hesitation that she has filed not one cent. Well put a fork in me and call me German then. Cause I am done. You shouldn’t be allowed to get work as a foreigner and flaunt tax laws. Fudging is one thing.  But whatever the point is, what other people do is bullshit and none of my business. I am the one who gets to decide if I want to risk getting caught (I don’t! I’m a straight arrow), or if it’s too much money and stress and time for me to deal with.

I was a wreck this week. Didn’t want to get up, bawling, depressed ball of frustration. I will never get ahead financially, cause I hear about all these exceptions, but I am the one who never gets any breaks. I need the money and I wanted the course, but I was willing to stick to my guns. Because I knew it couldn’t be that difficult and I am sick of jumping blindly into a situation, just cause I need to earn money and then pay all the bills I could have avoided later.

For her part, the woman took my advice went to her accountant and found out that as a student I can earn a modest 2,400 a year before I have to register with the tax office. Accountants may be my biggest source of pain, but also my biggest source of clarity and guidance and I knew if there was an easier way they would know it.

I swear it was like finally seeing the sun after months and months of rain. It is exactly the money I need, when I have the time to earn it.

So that’s me right now. I am still fighting, but I am sick of fighting. I am pursuing my goals, but I am exhausted and distracted by having to do everything the hard way cause I am not European. I have edged out over this challenge, but who knows what will happen with the next. I am making my life here as secure as I can and I hope that once I get more established, things will get easier and more lucrative things will come.

I don’t know anyone who works as hard as I do for the little money I get, but whose struggles are met with such disbelief. It’s insulting and demeaning. But we Americans are all supposed to be spoiled and rich, right, so what do I expect? I pity the fool who underestimates me though. All of those people just light the fire under me to never let them be proven right and to stand up when ignorant people try to steamroll me into their misconceptions and misinformation, and trust my gut and my experience over hearsay.

Only the strong survive abroad and I haven’t been beaten just yet.