Zambia

IMG_9432-EFFECTS

It was more difficult to complete my meditation about my time in Zambia than I anticipated. I’ve been sitting on my experiences for about a month, and honestly, I think I had some serious digesting to do. This trip was different than the trip I took 10 years ago. It was just as impactful; however, the ways in which I was impacted were not the same as those as a fresh-eyed college student who still thought diet mountain dew and peanut M&M’s were an acceptable option for a meal. Because of my previous trip, I had already seen zebras and giraffes and had my sunglasses stolen by a monkey; I knew not to drink the water from the tap, although this didn’t prevent me from accidentally brushing my teeth with tap water on my first day. To be fair, I was very tired and used a tube of hydrocortisone instead of toothpaste, so I clearly wasn’t functioning at peak alertness. I also had already met Fran and Lonnie Turner, who first came to Zambia over 40 years ago. The Turners have a home in South Africa but come to Zambia for months at a time to volunteer through the non-profit they started, Partners in Development. The Turners ensured I had an authentic experience in Zambia in 2007 by connecting me with a family who allowed me to stay in their hut, in the middle of nowhere, for close to 2 weeks. Most importantly, though, I was braced for an incongruous juxtaposition of extreme poverty and incredible natural beauty. In short, I didn’t come to Zambia blind this time, and prior to leaving Germany, I made a list of tentative objectives, knowing that I would have to be flexible, based on my group and what the actual needs of the villagers were. My group was to stay in Livingstone; we would would be shepherded daily into “the bush” via Lonnie’s rental truck, and included the Turners, my cousin, Ashlyn, who is a veterinary student; my father; my father’s co-worker, a social worker; and her 18 year-old son. I was told we would be in Munyanya Village, one of the same places I visited 10 years ago. I was informed that the biggest need in the village was education and literacy, but I should be prepared to talk to the villagers, to listen to them, to hear in their own words what their strengths were, but also what their needs were.

In preparation for my trip, I sought to arm myself with activities and games and ideas for both basic literacy and female empowerment. I contacted the Peace Corps in Zambia and scoured ESL websites. I was almost immediately struck by the lack of applicable materials for dealing with rural poverty. The ESL website has many activities for learning English; however, most of them pertain to urban life: going to the cinema, dining out, vacations, and travel. The poorest of the poor do not have banking accounts; many don’t even have electricity or access to clean water. They attend schools where more than 60 students must share a small classroom with one teacher. They have no pens, no paper, no books. There are no school buses; no carpool lines. There aren’t even paved roads. Many have never left the village in which they were born.

I knew better than to arrive in Zambia with a spoiled, white person’s view of the world, but in my attempt to find culturally appropriate materials, I came up empty. I made do with what I could find, but I was reminded of research I did about rural poverty when I was in undergrad and graduate school. Rural poverty is often invisible, because people assume the biggest problems are in cities, where homelessness and the impact of poverty are directly observable.  Trying to assist rural communities isn’t easy, because often the message which gets conveyed is the only way to escape from the cycle of poverty is to physically leave it behind, whether it be through an exodus from the town in search of a job in a city, or by getting into college. Quality, successful programs aimed at addressing infrastructure in rural communities are rarely discussed. This is why I appreciate the Turners so much. They are attempting to put things in place in rural communities which will improve the lives of everyone and will ensure some sort of sustainability, whether it’s a well to provide clean drinking water, or a cleared field in which children are free to play soccer.

IMG_9194

Zambia is a special place. The landscape, with Victoria Falls carving a deep gash through the countryside, is stunning; the thunderous falls necessitate a raincoat for any viewer seeking an up-close glimpse, but as long as you’re OK wearing a plastic poncho in all your photos, it’s an utterly incredible experience. Rainbows arch across the expansive falls.

IMG_9609The locals refer to it as “Mosi-oa-Tunya,” which means “the smoke that thunders.” One must be prepared to walk to get the full effect, because Victoria Falls spans two countries and offers drastically different viewpoints, depending on the angle of origin. Wild elephants, giraffes, zebras, monkeys, and impalas can be spotted on the grounds of many hotels in Livingstone, as well as along the roads, one of which cuts through a nature preserve. Without the light pollution of a fully developed country, an endless sea of stars is laid out like shimmering diamonds against a jeweler’s velvety display case.

 

Indeed, Zambia is beautiful, but the disparity between the wealth of natural resources and the poverty of the vast majority of the population is stark. It’s difficult not to feel angry when you witness droves of fellow tourists enjoying high tea on the lawn of a massive hotel, whose lobby features zebra hides and antlered heads, and parents let squirming children get way too close to the warthogs which freely roam the grounds. At the same time, it’s easy to be one of those people who geeks out when a monkey plops from a tree and offers what you assume to be a demure and unassuming expression, only to find out seconds later that all it wants from you is food, and it will brandish a branch and go toe to toe with you in a nest of tree roots in order to get it.

IMG_8965
Vervet AKA the “I look cute but don’t cross me or I’ll charge you and and eat your hand” Monkey

It’s challenging to spin such things into a whimsical tale of elephants and waterfalls, bandaged knees and ABC’s. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to pretend I’m a hero who saved a village and can walk away thoroughly satisfied and unburdened. I would be doing a disservice to my fellow volunteers and aid workers, as well as the people of Zambia, if I summarized my experiences as such. But I’m also not the sort of person to dwell solely on the negatives. I function best when I try on a variety of lenses and frameworks and adopt the one which uses a kaleidoscope of experiences, both good and bad.

IMG_9323
Munyanya Village

What I can say for certain is this: Improvements have been made in Munyanya Village since I visited 10 years ago. On my last trip, women were being eaten by crocodiles while attempting to get water from the river, a bucketful at a time. They were then using these buckets to water gardens and small parcels of land. The Turners supplied the village with a treadle pump, an instrument which could be used to pump water from the river through a hose, eliminating the need to endanger one’s life in the river and also significantly increasing the amount of arable land. In the years since I was there, the land which was once dusty and dry now contains fields of crops, and the crops are being harvested and sold. This was so exciting to see. The Turners have also built a pre-K building, which is a place for students and adults to come for tutoring.

IMG_9199

It was in the pre-K building where I spent the majority of my time. The pre-K building is used in the mornings as a place for children, ages 3-7, to go in order to learn fundamentals of math and English. Prior to its construction, the children had nothing to do and nowhere to go. The building has a meager library and is also used in the afternoons for tutoring older children and, theoretically, adults, although as I soon learned, adults were very unlikely to show up. The classroom has a concrete floor and has been filled with tiny, colorful plastic tables and chairs, as well as a few collapsible tables. While we were there, one of the volunteers made some beautiful posters to help decorate the classroom.

Most of the 30-40 children in the classroom were younger than the IMG_9228age of seven, but there was one student, a teenager named Robert, who had also been included in the group. Each day, he was seated at a table, off to the side of the rest of the students. In the United States, he would qualify as a student with a major learning disability. Among the many things not present in the classroom are training and appropriate materials for students requiring special assistance. Prior to the construction of the pre-K building, I have no idea where Robert spent his time. He is one of many who could easily slip through the cracks of Zambia’s public education system.

When I was a child seated in a cluster of desks in my classroom, I was one of the ones who thrust my hand in the air excitedly when a teacher asked a question. I was so excited to learn, and I saw that same passion in children in Munyanya. These children need a place to cultivate their enthusiasm for learning. When they advance to the primary school, they are easily lost in a sea of older children and must fight to make their voices heard in a classroom with numbers which swell to 60-100 students. The ratio of students to teacher makes it very hard for anything other than the most basic of skills to be imparted. Students lack textbooks and workbooks. IMG_9278 Everyday materials which I took for granted in elementary school – pencils, an art-box, marble-bound notebooks, workbooks in which I could practice my letters and handwriting- are nowhere to be found. I actually spent part of an afternoon assisting a teacher who was writing out dotted lines in the shape of letters in neat rows on pieces of scrap paper which had been stapled together in a rudimentary notebook. The students had been dismissed for the day, but the teacher stayed in the classroom to prepare for the next day. Imagine the lessons she could plan and the energy she could save by simply being able to distribute ready-made workbooks! Education should be a basic human right, but for many, it remains a privilege.

In addition to working with children, I met several times with a group of women in the village. The women showed up wearing blue t-shirts with the words “Murphy USA” in boxy white letters. Many of them spoke little English, so a woman named Edith translated from the local dialect. Edith is a spirited, no-nonsense nurse with a huge heart. There were about 12 women who ranged in age from their 20’s to 60’s. Most of the women had lost at least one child to AIDS or another disease. Some had become mothers as young as 13 or 14. The women discussed the ways in which their lives changed when they became mothers, as well as their dreams for themselves and their children. We talked about how their lives had changed after a grinding machine was brought to the village for all to use.

IMG_9567

The women are able to grind their corn into meal, which is used as a staple in Zambians’ diets. Having a little bit of money raises a new set of issues, as the women discussed. Some were dealing with abusive, alcoholic husbands who expected the women to bring in money to pay for their habits; one women stole money from others and gave it to a family member. There was mistrust among the women, so we discussed ways to work as a group and to take turns supporting one another. I strongly encouraged the women to continue meeting twice a week, indefinitely. They picked days of the week and a time that fit their schedules. I hope they do continue to meet and talk, but they could definitely benefit from having someone, preferably a local, provide basic counseling services.

IMG_9219

In addition to discussing personal issues, the women also agreed how important education is and some even admitted that they have a desire to learn English. One of the things the Turners would like to do is employ full-time teachers, as well as someone to specialize in adult literacy. I definitely had moments where I considered moving to Zambia for a few months (or forever) to help provide tutoring and counseling assistance, but I don’t think that’s the most economically sound way to make a difference. I also strongly believe that a local, not a white American, should be the one to provide this service. I obviously can’t change my heritage and am perfectly proud of my background, but Zambians don’t need another outsider coming in and showing them how things should be done. They should have a hero who is also Zambian. Besides, I didn’t go to school for education, and it’s not my area of expertise. Hopefully the Turners will find the appropriate person in the near future.

The Turners are in the process of a having a 40-foot container shipped to Zambia. The container is somewhere in Kentucky at the moment, filling up with supplies which range from sports equipment to books. Once the container reaches Zambia, the supplies will be distributed and the container itself converted to a library. It is here where adults and children will be able to go to further their education. The vision is in place. The next step is to fully stock the container, and of course, to secure funding so the container can be shipped from Kentucky to Zambia. I will include information about how to donate to Partners in Development at the bottom of this page, if you are interested in doing so.

The Turners are also currently working on several projects in Munyanya, as well as other villages. Fran has been gifted a parcel of land which she hopes to clear and designate for planting peanuts. Have I mentioned Zambia has the best peanut butter in the world? The soil is ideally suited for growing peanuts, so once the land is cleared, peanut farming is another way to bring money into the village. In order to clear the land, however, the Turners need financial support, as well as appropriate equipment.

Additionally, the Turners support a veterinarian named Athens, who is incredibly hardworking and passionate about his profession. My cousin assisted him for three weeks while she was in Zambia, and they were able to do everything from treat a dog with cancer, to castrate piglets and trim goat hooves. Athens goes into remote areas where few, if any, have gone in order to vaccinate cattle, goats, dogs, cats, chickens, pretty much any animal, really. Protecting people’s animals against disease is important, not only for the animals but for the containment of diseases which can also impact humans. My cousin brought a bunch of donated supplies for owners to use for protecting animals from fleas, ticks, and heartworm, but ensuring appropriate veterinary care is a long-term issue. This is another way in which you can help the welfare of people and animals in Zambia.

So, you may be wondering about the fun stuff. Well, plenty of that happened, too, especially if you consider stomach problems in forested areas where lack of plumbing forces one to quickly become acquainted with nature. Fortunately I was in an area where the width of trees surpassed the width of my own body, allowing passable coverage from the van of travelers waiting on the side of the road for me to finish. It wasn’t fun at the time, but it’s really funny in hindsight.

IMG_9604Other fun things: I bartered with merchants touting their stone-carved animals and bowls made from coconut shells. I attempted to do the hokey-pokey with a group of school children. I took about a thousand pictures of Victoria Falls. I managed to get an entire giraffe in one of my selfies, and my cousin and I were taken to see a rhino who is protected around the clock by armed guards. I went on a safari, where an elephant came within arms length of our vehicle, and said vehicle was nearly rammed by the approaching elephant due to volume control issues from an overly excited fellow tourist. I guess not everyone received the pre-safari memo that elephants don’t respond well to the cutesy, baby voice one typically reserves for addressing kittens and infants. I’m grateful the elephant was in a forgiving mood and preferred to concern itself with bathing in the river instead of trampling a group of tourists. And speaking of near-death experiences with wildlife…

IMG_8940
That time I took a selfie with a giraffe

While walking along a pathway after viewing the Falls, my father, cousin and I came so close to a family of wild baboons that I could feel a rush of air when we passed each other. I’d like to say it was a dream come true to be so close to my favorite character from The Lion King, but I was terrified. Baboons are big, with dagger-like canines, and I really didn’t want my face ripped off. Ferocious, non-hominoid primates aside, if you are a lover of animals and nature, Africa is a dream. I am beyond fortunate to have seen parts of it more than once.

People have asked me if I want to go back to Zambia, and if I would encourage others to go. Absolutely, BUT, here’s what I would say to anyone who is considering taking a trip: Don’t go because you fancy yourself a hero. Don’t go because you want to impress others with your worldliness. Don’t go if you are unmoved by the beauty of nature and the best freaking peanut butter in the entire world. Don’t go if you care nothing about the preservation of wild animals and their natural habitats. Don’t go if you plan to be a tourist who thinks baby-talking a wild elephant will yield a successful interaction. Don’t go if you are afraid to get your clothes and shoes dusted by copper-infused soil. But do go if you want to see a culture drastically different than your own. Do go if you have an open mind and a willingness to hear the stories of locals, so that you might share them with others. Do go if you want to write odes to “the smoke that thunders” from within a rainbow-hued cloud of mist. I will return one day, and hopefully my husband will come with me. And maybe you will come, too. If you’re interested, let me know, and I’ll put you in touch with the Turners.

IMG_9343In the meantime, however, if you are unable to go but want to help there’s a way to do so. The Turners need books and teaching supplies, athletic equipment, tools for construction projects, shoes, clothes, pens, pencils, notebooks, art supplies, and just about anything you can imagine. They also need financial assistance in order to send the shipping container to Zambia. If you want to donate, I will enclose the link to the Partners in Development website. If you have a particular area to which you’d like to donate, you can do so when you submit your donation.

Thank you for supporting me through your donations and well-wishes, and thank you for reading my account of my experiences in Zambia. By doing so, you are helping ensure that the one of the biggest dreams of the rural poor -knowing they are not forgotten- has been realized.

If you are interested in submitting a donation, please see the  Partners in Development website for more information. http://partnersindevelopment.org/

 

 

Advertisements

The Tale of the Mouse and the Social Worker

img_5902
Cologne Cathedral

I first saw the mouse scrambling across the well-worn stone plaza in the shadow of Cologne’s towering cathedral. The mouse flitted about, attracting the attention of a few who pointed and cooed with delight. This was no scruffy rat with a bald pink tail, nor was this a generic gray mouse radiating grime and pestilence. No, this was a wee little thing, with a bulbous round body the size of a thumbprint and a tail twice as long. I immediately became concerned for its safety; it couldn’t have chosen a more lethal location for adventuring. The Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) is the most visited site in Germany. On average, it boasts some 20,000 visitors a day. This is not a good place to be, even if you are unarguably adorable, if you are also nearly microscopic and trying to dodge your way through thousands of pairs of feet.

Over the years, millions of pairs of shoes have worn the plaza in front of the cathedral down to the smooth and polished texture of river stones. As I watched the mouse scampering around, I could detect no obvious location from which it had come. It was tiny, and it was vulnerable. Though some people noticed the mouse, plenty more trundled to and fro, looking straight ahead. I shooed the mouse away from an oblivious bicyclist, and then literally shoved a man who was looking up at the beautiful blue October sky. He came close to treading on the mouse, but my shove and accompanying shout managed to divert his steps. Fortunately he was an animal lover and immediately apologized rather than immediately curse at me in German and shove me back. It was at this moment that I became convinced this mouse was in mortal danger and needed a rescue plan. I searched in vain for a clear and obvious place where the mouse could easily retreat. Finding none, I pleaded with my husband to search for a box or giant cup to use as a temporary transport vessel as I shepherded this insanely precious cotton ball-with-a-face to safety. The closest place was a nearby corner made by the convergence of a large cement planter and the edge of a shop.  I stood with my back facing the hoard of people flocking to the cathedral- keeping an eye on the mouse, who seemed quite content for the moment to preen in a location free of giant humans and their stampeding feet. It turned its dainty nose up at a discarded cigarette and preened its whiskers with its minute paws. The shop I faced was closed but in its windows were beautifully painted orbs made from an undetermined material. They were richly colored like planets and suspended from the ceiling with nearly invisible string. Several people approached, assuming I was admiring a famous art display and stood next to me, arms crossed, as if examining an abstract painting at a museum or gallery. One lady even tried to strike up a conversation, but I feigned total absorption in my art-gazing, merely nodding and agreeing that the probably-papier-mâché planets were indeed “sehr schön.” Dan appeared several moments later with a box containing a Köln Cathedral snow globe. We removed the snow globe from its styrofoam casket. We now had a nearly perfect empty box for transporting the mouse to safety. Now, not to brag, but I have a distinguished legacy of capturing and releasing animals. For example, I’m a pro at corralling spiders into cups with a piece of paper to trap it inside. I know I’m in the minority, but I believe killing spiders is bad luck.

Needless to say, I was able to get the mouse into the box with little issue. My plan was to drive to a patch of forest or park and let him go. Dan and I got into our car and contemplated various release spots.  I did my research and identified that the mouse I had caught was a harvest mouse. I further researched and determined  what its natural habitat was. But then, some 50 km outside Cologne, Dan and I made our first mistake: We gave the mouse a name and that name was Karl. As we drove, I had one excuse after another about why each potential release spot wasn’t right (too close to the interstate; not the right ratio of farmland to field…). We ended up bringing Karl home. We set his snow globe box inside a large plastic container and poked holes in its lid. I went to the store and bought grass bedding and mouse food, which was wheel-shaped, approximately the circumference of a plum, and made entirely out of different types of seeds. I went outside and gathered stalks of wheat and sticks and other things to give his home a more natural feeling. I brought him a little dish of water made from the empty top of a plastic water bottle. I laid out the seed wheel, along with bits of bread and tried different types of fruit and vegetables to see what he liked. Apples, I soon learned, were his favorite. Eventually, Karl overcame his shyness and started exploring his surroundings. He did this with the ferocity of a ricocheting bullet. He jumped and sniffed and tried to find any possible escape route. It was like watching a beautiful tiger at the zoo, who is pacing back and forth, with a primal understanding that it is not meant for a cage; it is meant for roaming wide expanses of jungle. I decided I couldn’t stand to watch this and if it continued, I would let Karl go immediately. The next day, it stopped. Karl adapted to his authentic-looking but artificial habitat. He ate his seed wheel and bits of apple. He excreted an amount of feces that I thought impossible for any creature of his size. I cleaned the paper-towel-lined snow globe box daily and re-filled his water “dish”. All the while, I continued to ponder whether I was doing the right thing by keeping Karl. Was I sheltering him and protecting him from the rapidly approaching winter, or was I trapping him in a container meant to hold legos or shoes, not a wild animal?

I kept Karl for exactly a week before deciding it was time to let him go.

img_5888-2
The farmland and fields by our home, which are also Karl’s new home

I researched online where harvest mice like to live and where they go in the winter. Dan and I set out and found the perfect location: On the fringe of a brambly ditch with field and farm beyond, we found a pathway that’s hedged in on both sides by piles of felled grain and discarded mulch. Several meters up the pathway there was an empty space in a wall of rhubarb, wheat, corn stalks, and other unidentifiable, formerly-flora detritus. It had several layers of shelter, provided by the natural indention in the pile, as well as a layer of bramble above that, and finally, a tall tree towering above, with leaves dense enough to serve as a partial canopy for future rain and snow. I pulled out the reeds and grass from Karl’s box. I scattered extra grass throughout the space to make the area comfortable and to offer extra warmth and shelter. I left him his favorite food: the seed wheels. I also scattered the 5 remaining seed-rings that Karl hadn’t yet eaten, throughout the niche. I figured that, barring future intense and extremely abnormal food cravings, I had no use for the things.  I spent a while judging the likelihood of predators finding him, as well as the likelihood that his territory would be encroached upon by humans. Luckily, where we live, the only possible predators are mice-eating birds and possibly pine martens, the latter of which I’ve never seen. There are so many layers of coverage that it’s unlikely a bird would ever be able to snatch him up. The space looked like a well-established dumping ground for nearby farmers and was close enough to fields and farms that I wasn’t too worried about someone deciding to mow the area down and build a grocery store. Thoughtlessly discarded in the wall of forgotten grain, there was a blue plastic bucket. It was mostly filled with rain water and a layer of recently and not so recently shed leaves. I immediately became worried about it being a drowning hazard, so I wedged 4 or 5 sticks into the bucket, leaning them against the side of the bucket so that in the event that Karl attempted to get a drink of water and fell head first into an unexpected lake, he had easily accessible ladders to grab onto. I probably need not have bothered, for I’d already learned that Karl was a cunning and resourceful little mouse.

I finally steeled myself and opened up his container, inside of which was his old snow-globe box, where he was currently hiding. I tipped the box on its side and released Karl. I’m not sure what I was expecting at this moment: perhaps time would slow down and a soundtrack of violins would start up as my new friend hesitantly took a few steps forward while giving me a furtive, questioning glance. Ultimately, Karl is a mouse, so he vacated that box at top speed and with no fanfare, dashing into his new home. I watched him for a while, as he explored and moved bits of grass about and sniffed his seed wheels. Finally satisfied, Dan and I left. I got halfway home and turned back. When I first arrived back at the spot, he was nowhere to be seen, but soon he emerged, showing himself for a few seconds before ducking back into the hidden recesses of the wall of reeds and wheat. This is the point where I started to cry. How was this little mouse going to survive on its own? Clearly we are joined at the soul, as he showed himself, however briefly, to me when I returned. I decided I wasn’t ready to give up. I walked home and sliced up an apple, his favorite, dicing up 7 pieces small enough for Karl. Next, I left the apartment, jumped a fence and very likely trespassed on someone else’s property to retrieve a discarded clay flower pot from a pile of ancient, discarded things. I returned to the spot once more, with my newly acquired clay pot and apple slices wrapped in a paper towel in my coat pocket. I stuffed the flower pot with more grass, (we had so much of it left over that we threw it onto a stack of mulch) as well as the little square of paper towel and 7 mouse-sized pieces of apple. When I returned, Karl once again came out of hiding for a time and then dived back under the grass, like a dolphin slipping into the trough of a wave. I left the apples and the clay pot and this time walked home and stayed home. I returned the next day. All 7 pieces of apple remained tucked inside the flower pot, but the seed wheels were completely gone, pulled, I imagine, into a comfy little hole he’s made for himself under the thick layer of grass. I waited the length of time it took for 3 1/2 songs to play on my i-Phone for him to come scurrying out. When he didn’t, I walked away and then quickly dashed back to see if I’d fooled him. No such luck. This time, he was nowhere to be found. I had mixed feelings as I walked away. A cover to “Let My Love Open the Door” was blaring from my earbuds. I teared up once more. A big part of me was hoping that he’d appear, as he had on each of my previous visits. But I told myself he had pulled all his seed wheels into a reachable location underneath the surface of his new home and was comfortable and happy. I left the apple slices in the flower pot. I’m telling myself that I won’t go back every day to see if they’re a few nibbles smaller. It’s now been 3 days, and I haven’t returned.

Part of letting go means that it’s no longer up to me how Karl succeeds or fails to keep himself safe. He’s on his own now, far from Cologne, but nevertheless free. Does that mean I won’t go to the store and buy more seed wheels and occasionally drop a few into his hiding spot? Does it mean I won’t occasionally veer off my walking path towards Karl’s last-known dwelling to search for traces of mouse? I suppose I haven’t fully let go, but I have accepted that each time I return-if I return- it is unlikely I will see him again. I made that choice when I let him go; I made that choice when I realized that taking a wild thing and trying to tame it was not something, in the long run, I was willing to do.

It is no secret to myself or those who know me that I have a soft spot when it comes to rescuing animals, and people. In my career of attempting to save animals, I have had some obvious successes (much to the chagrin of my mother, in whose charge several of these animals currently reside). When it comes to people, it’s obviously trickier. I’m drawn toward all things cracked, broken, un-loved, hurting, lost, sad, and lonely. This is why I may try my hand at different careers throughout my life, but I will always carry the heart of a social worker. As a social worker, one often does not get to witness the success stories of our clients, or if we do, we often have to watch the decline following a success. I am aware that the rescue mission of this mouse was more than a simple mission to ensure an adorable mouse didn’t get squished under the soles of stampeding tourists. I was presented with an opportunity to have influence over the life of another, an influence which was measurable and observable and lasted for the length of time that I was able to adequately provide him care. Social workers often don’t get such opportunities. As individuals, we also rarely have such an opportunity to exercise control over our own lives. Recognizing that we are not always in control and must place trust in others, whether those others are supreme beings or human beings, can be difficult. Floating around in my brain is the notion that once I am able to fully accept and embrace that I cannot control whether or not the person that I voted for didn’t get elected to become the next president; or whether someone likes my writing; or whether people like my new haircut; or if others agree with my current favorite musical selection; or whether it stops raining for one freaking week so I can see the sun; or whether I am able to save a life, the closer I come to accepting that what matters most is caring, and trying, and being okay with life’s baseline: being. If success is my measuring stick, it’s an insufficient and unwieldy thing. Also, it’s arbitrary. But if love is what motivates me, and faith, in myself and others, is what sustains and grounds me, the next step is relinquishing the illusion of control, which is the only path that propels me towards acceptance. My earthly task is to decorate my tiny space in the world how I see fit (so obviously with lots of flowers and inspirational quotes and an automatic hug-giving machine), and to choose the music that goes with my life’s soundtrack, and to make sure my voice is heard, and to do everything I can to help ensure other people’s voices, especially those so often suppressed, are heard, too. That is all I can do. I can wish with all my might that Karl survives the winter, and maybe even one day meets other harvest mice, but this is a kind of truth or fiction that I will never see come to pass. I have to move on and let Karl move one. Luckily, this is one thing I do know how to help fix. After Dan and I return from Thanksgiving, we’re getting a cat. It’ll be a rescue, of course. It is unrealistic to expect that I will ever stop trying to help what I deem needs helping, but I have learned there’s an important boundary to draw. My influence stops when in casting my net wide in the ever-lasting quest to amass all the knowledge and wisdom I can, I manage to tangle up in those threads something interesting, something I can’t help but feel fortunate to have caught. Shiny and exciting as this thing may be, it was never meant for me. It was always meant to be free.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-9-36-47-pm
Image from Leo Lionni’s “Frederick”

Slideshows and Sandwiches

Gerlingen 3
Stuttgart Ost- near my friend Liana’s house

This is where I sheepishly pretend that it hasn’t been months and months since my last blog post. I must admit that the months following Christmas were a bit of a struggle for me, and I defaulted into hibernation mode. I’ve been fortunate so far in my life to have lived in places that are moderate in temperature and/or generously supplied with sunshine. For this southern girl, Germany in the winter was cold, dark, and dismal. This is not to say that Dan and I did not attempt to embrace the weather: we continued to travel; I made myself go outside and take walks, even when the sky was dumping snow. The difference in weather conditions has been a big adjustment, as have many things. Adjustments, however, aren’t good or bad. They are simply stages of inbetweenness.

I recently uploaded all the photos onto my laptop for the first time since I purchased my phone last September. I watched as the individual uploading images appeared on the screen like a film reel, giving me a perfect chronological visual of the past 9 (!) months. Not only did I see pictures of castles and mountains and storybook houses, I also saw the everyday moments caught in between: my husband playing legos in our living room; homemade cocktails; the night (let’s be honest…nights) we had waffles for dinner; our first dinner party with our friends Tom and Liana; giant beer-filled glasses sipped under striped tents during Frühlingsfest (aka Spring Oktoberfest); a wintry landscape slowly transforming into green grass and pink flowers. Through photos, I’m reminded of the beautiful places I’ve been, as well as the places I want to continue to explore. In fact, oftentimes photos tell a story better than words. They are utterly reflective in their simplicity. While going for walks in the nearby hills and valleys, I have found the countryside of my imagination: houses made of mossy bricks; simple staircases carved into sloped hillsides; fields of dandelions dotted with bright, wild tulips; wide swaths of countryside featuring nothing but vineyards. These are the quiet pathways for walking your dog/imaginary dog, or stopping for a picnic. These are the peaceful corners of the world I’ve been hoping to find.

And also, because I’m me, my camera phone is littered with stealth shots of strangely costumed folks on the subway and 75 year-old men in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. I  thoughtfully opted to not include these in my photo albums (which, by the way, I finally uploaded onto this website, should you care to take a gander)… I’m thankful to have had my adventure replayed, because it’s in the day-to-day living that the big picture so often gets displaced. It can be easy to miss the subtle shifts, the things that don’t change minute-to-minute or day-to-day, but in much larger increments over time.

As far as what I do on a daily basis, it varies. Some days I hang out with my friend Liana and eat chips and salsa while chatting and playing with her 4 cats; some days, especially when the weather is nice, I go on walks for 5 hours until I’m completely turned around and must rely on my phone’s GPS to get me home; some days I make fancy meals that, in order to create, involve walking to a local fruit vendor, then taking the train downtown to get chicken from our favorite “Metzgerei,” before coming home and butchering pineapples and mangoes and using every spoon, bowl, and platter in the kitchen; some days, especially when the sky is endlessly weeping its tears upon Stuttgart, I spend time in our apartment writing and coloring in my adult coloring book with music or Netflix in the background; some days, if I’ve failed to reach my daily goal of 10,000 steps, I’ve been known to make laps around my apartment at 9:00 at night. I’ve also gotten very into gardening, (<— that was harder to admit than I thought it would be…) and I love to potter around in my porch garden, where I’m growing herbs, tomatoes, various flowers, and a raspberry bush. My raspberry bush just birthed its first almost fully-fledged, beautiful bright-red berry. This achievement marked a major milestone in my horticultural prowess. When my first tomato ripens, I will probably throw it a birthday party. 😉

Patio Garden
My patio garden, circa April 2016

I’m often asked about the progression of my German. While I’d love to say that I’m 100% fluent and am currently tackling my 5th foreign language, the truth is that my language-learning is moving less at a full-steam-ahead-pace and more at a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race pace. I’ve had an interruption with my German lessons, for various reasons, BUT I’ll pick back up in the fall. In the meantime, I am learning what I need to know to get by and interact with my fellow Germans. My language skills have now progressed to the stage where I can do the following:

-Confidently order food, AND make picky requests like wanting salad dressing on the side and no mushrooms even remotely in the same vicinity of my soups/pizza, etc. There have certainly been times when I’ve mispronounced things and received a blank stare as if I’d just uttered a made up language. For example, “Birne” is the German word for pear. In German, one must always properly accent the “e” at the end of a word. I made the mistake of saying, “Beer-nuh” instead of “Beer-neh.” Yeah, apparently that’s the equivalent of me saying, “kdoaerionkeapkdowehrdapqioeurioelaspleron” to a German. Lesson learned.

-Thoroughly and colorfully insult the obnoxious teenagers who like to clamber aboard the train, disrupting my ritual of gazing out the window in blissful reverie, with their distracting hairstyles, carrying voices, and amusing ploys to attract gazes from the opposite sex. (Does it officially make me a cranky grown-up if I’m shaking my proverbial fist and complaining about teenagers? I believe it does! #ihopemyfuturechildrenskippuberty) I don’t insult them out loud, of course. However, if they were to take a moment away from being typical, self-engrossed teenagers and ask me what I was thinking, I’m sure they’d agree that I put even their adolescent penchants for obscenities to shame.

-Pick out my groceries without accidentally buying the wrong spice (Cumin does not taste the same as cinnamon…though both are excellent, if used separately, on popcorn!).

-Assist bedraggled tourists with directions, using minimal pointing…provided I actually know the location to which they are attempting to get… so, 25% of the time I’m useful 😉

-Go to the market and have an exchange with the butcher, florist, fruit and vegetable attendant, coffee stand worker, etc. without embarrassing myself.

-Make phone calls where I address secretaries and take their questions without switching from German to English. Admittedly, they often try to keep talking beyond the scope of my German abilities, at which point I fake a sore throat/cough and promptly hang up the phone.

-Listen to German radio and TV and sometimes even actually understand what’s being said.

****************************************

I’ve given myself a year to simply enjoy being in Germany without feeling like I must pile on inflexible activities and other commitments. And yet, because my day-to-day life is so variable, oftentimes I do miss the inherent structure of ta full time job. While I do write and spend time focusing on developing my hobbies, there is no rule book for how to spend my time. Once upon a time, I probably would have rejoiced at the thought of so much free time, but the reality of it is at times overwhelming. I have a feeling that eventually I will need to have more on my plate to feel completely like myself again. Besides, I can’t very well call myself a German until I’ve joined at least one club or group. Germans are hardcore when it comes to hobbies. One does not simply say, “I like to hike.” Once those words are uttered, I’m pretty sure people bust into your home wearing astronaut/hazmat suits, just like that scene in E.T., and insist that you stop what you’re doing and follow them into the wilderness (it’s possible that I’m exaggerating slightly…).

Guilt is something I, and I’d wager most people, deal with at varying degrees on a regular basis.  Guilt is a tricky thing to avoid.When I’m dealing with anxiety and dips with my mood,  guilt flares up and takes root, gnawing away at my facade as it works its way into my bones, like pestilent termites of the soul. Dan and I have a unique set of challenges presented to us in Germany, but at the end of the day, we’re living in freaking Europe. I will never have this opportunity again; I do not wish to squander it by feeling guilty about my current lack of gainful employment. Guilt tends to cling to people, no matter the circumstance. I haven’t quite mastered how to squash the guilt and allow myself to find a balance between the necessity of doing and the beautiful simplicity of being. I suspect it’ll take a long time, maybe even most of a lifetime. I’m okay with that, mostly/sometimes/occasionally never. And I can say with certainty that by embracing the glorious late-spring weather, I have found a way to marvel at my present situation with little room for anything other than gratitude. *This is my way of saying that you should plan to visit me in the late-spring/early summer. K thanks.*

gerlingen 21
Our “refrigerator” magnets. Not pictured: various wedding invitations and our gangsta rap magnetic poetry.

When Dan and I started dating, we began a tradition of sorts: anytime we travel, together or separately, we always get a magnet representing the place we’re visiting. We are now up to 29 magnets. I look forward to seeing the number in our collection when we finally pack up and move back to the States (assuming Trump doesn’t become president… if he does, y’all should just consider moving here ;-)). I am also excited to review another slideshow of pictures, featuring not only the glamorous locales toured with visitors and on weekend excursions, but the quiet moments of banality, randomness, humor, joy, and love sandwiched in between.

Travels with Heather and Doug: March 2016

FAQ

I’ve started this blog post countless times over the past few moths. One version included a fairly detailed description of our new apartment, which I’m happy to report is now fully functional, completely decorated, and topped off with seasonal touches of pine boughs, crimson flowers, and candles (not pictured…). I’ve not been good at universally keeping people informed about what’s been going on with Dan and me. Sorry about that. I have decided that the best way to give an update without being too mechanical is to answer the questions that get asked most frequently from family and friends about living in Germany. This is also a convenient way for me to put everything into list-form, which I’m sure you’ve come to realize is something I’m rather fond of 🙂

Katie’s FAQ’s:

1.)“How’s Germany?” The most frequently asked question by friends and family is also the most complicated to answer. So I’m skipping it for now and will come back to it at the end.

2.)“What are your favorite things about Germany?” I can handle this one. AND, I’ll answer by making a list within a list.

Things I like About Living in Germany:

*The prevalence of gingerbread. I always thought gingerbread was something that only came out at Christmas- like eggnog, candy canes, and creepy claymation Rudolph. Germany does not agree. They sell a kind of cookie called “Lebkuchenherz” in bags- similar to the way we sell chips and candy- year round. They are heart-shaped pieces of gingerbread, dunked in dark chocolate. I have to say that I approve of this trend.

*The lack of cockroaches. I have spent the majority of my life living in the southeastern United States, and therefore have spent the majority of my life living in constant terror that when I pull back the shower curtain, or grab a box of pancake mix from a cabinet, one of those disgusting, six-legged, unfairly-gifted-with-speed nightmares will come scuttling out to terrorize me. I can’t tell you how nice it is to never have to worry about that. EVER.

*Proximity to cool places. So far, Dan and I have traveled to The Black Forest, Frankfurt, Strasbourg (France), Paris, and multiple local festivals. This weekend we are going to Nuremberg (and it’s supposed to snow!!!) to check out their Christmas Market. It is endlessly exciting living within a few hours of so many historic, beautiful places.

*My tuba-playing neighbor. This will probably also go on my list of “Worst things about living in Germany.” Somewhere below me in my apartment complex dwells a tuba-player. I know nothing about this person, except that his/her preferred practice time is between 10 a.m and 1 pm on weekdays. He/she plays anywhere from 1 to 3 times a week, occasionally skipping entire weeks at a time. If I cared about the perfection of this person’s tuba skills, I’d say he/she needs to pick up the pace with the practice sessions. As it happens, I prefer to be constantly surprised when the brassy chords ring out, and not interrupted during my morning primping rituals, so I’ll just be grateful that the music is spontaneously gifted and not constant.

*The strategically placed bakeries. In nearly every single German town I have visited, one need not walk more than 500 feet without seeing a bakery. Croissants, baguettes, pretzels, and sweets are always included in the display of baked goods. Ubiquitous bakeries are excellent, assuming you’re not concerned about your carbohydrate intake. Gluten-free diets are less than ideal if you’re German.

*The convenience of public transportation. There are two metro lines that run from Gerlingen to the heart of Stuttgart: The U-6 and the U-60. The U-6 and U-60 are the only pink metro lines on the color-coated map of the Stuttgart area’s various veins and arteries. I like that the colors designating Gerlingen are pink. I like that I can use the U-bahn, or buses, or the S-Bahn (city train), or just simply walk to get around. When you come visit, we’ll be sure to use public transportation throughout your stay 🙂

*Our car. Most of you have probably caught a glimpse of my trusty bluish-green 2000 Toyota Corolla. Some of you may have even been (mis)fortunate enough to ride in it. If not, I’m pretty sure it’s still alive and well in my parents’ driveway, should you care to take it for a spin. If you have seen my old steed, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess why I’m excited about having a brand new car… It’s an Audi A-1, black and compact, with a GPS. The interior lining isn’t shedding itself like an old skin. It doesn’t constantly leak oil, or make scary shuddering sounds when you accelerate past 10 mph. This particular make and model isn’t made in the United States, so we’re going to enjoy it while we can!

IMG_0456

*The scenery. I just don’t get sick of looking at the old timber houses, with their clay shingles and brightly colored shutters. I have been amazed to see that even in the winter, people find a way to keep their flowers, called “Blumen” in German, blooming. Whether it’s the countryside, city, or a small town, I’ve yet to have a reaction of, “meh” when exploring familiar or unfamiliar places. Sometimes this makes me feel like a tourist who is still on vacation, but hopefully the feeling will grow into a sort of prideful appreciation for the beauty of my surroundings, much like how it felt to live in lovely Charleston.

IMG_0200
Pretty church in Gerlingen; I like to stop during my walks and hang out in the courtyard.

*The history. Stuttgart and the surrounding areas have a history of their own; however, this is a great place to live because it is also close to so many other cool places, including entire freaking different countries. Dan and I are going to the Holocaust Museum in Nuremberg this weekend. We live just a few miles from a castle (!!!). The constant reminders of the vastness of Europe’s history definitely create a sense of awe and respect for our surroundings.

3.)”What don’t you like about living in Germany?”

            Things I Don’t Like About Germany:

*The weather- Being a native South Carolinian, I’m used to 80 degrees being an acceptable temperature, whether it be May (in fact, 80 is a little chilly for May) or December. I didn’t necessarily like the constant heat and humidity of Charleston, but I certainly grew accustomed to it. So far, Stuttgart is experiencing a relatively mild Fall/Winter. That being said, the temperature dropped very quickly from the warmth of late-August to the chill of September. Gerlingen is in a valley, which means that it’s prone to fog in the colder months: fog rolls in and cloaks the city in a dreary mist. This sometimes makes me play sad music as I stare forlornly out the window and pine for the sun. I try to force myself to go outside anyway, but it’s much tougher to do that when it’s cold and wet. I did finally purchase a pair of gigantic blue galoshes. I intentionally used the word “galoshes” because that is the precise sound these Clydesdales-of-boots make when splashing through puddles…Almost makes me appreciate incessant rainfall…almost.

*My tuba-playing neighbor. See above.

*Lack of a social network. Being far away from 99.9% of the people I know and love is hard. Plain and simple.

*The food. I’m a vegetarian, usually. Okay, sometimes I break down and eat Chick-fil-A, but for the most part, I try to avoid meat. This is not a country designed for non-meat eaters, seeing as how it’s nearly impossible to find a meal in a German restaurant that doesn’t contain pork. I think they even put pork in smoothies here. Now that we have a fully operational kitchen, I am able to cook at home without much issue, but I miss being able to go to, let’s say Moe’s, and get a heaping burrito with all the yummy things I like to eat and not worrying whether or not little bits of piggy have found their way into my tortilla.

*German TV. I was almost too embarrassed to include this, as I realize this highlights how hideously spoiled I am, but oh well. My pain is real, guys. So, there are these things called “licensing restrictions,” which basically means that even with a subscription to Netflix, it’s impossible to watch certain American programs in Germany. I can’t even always watch stuff on YouTube. Sports are also not possible to be watched, which is more of an issue for my husband than myself. There are supposedly solutions to this problem, and honestly, it’s not like I can’t survive without being able to stream Parks and Recreation… And yet, and YET, sometimes I just want to be able to watch the clip from SNL of “Adele’s Thanksgiving Miracle” that people keep posting on Facebook. It makes me feel slightly alienated when I can’t.

4.)“Have you made any new friends/met any interesting new people?”

Dan and I went to a cultural training recently and had the opportunity to meet other couples who have also moved here from abroad. We listened to a lecture about how it’s important to respect boundaries with Germans and to be patient about making new friends. The moderator, Sylvia, (go ahead and say the name with disdain… she’s the villain in this tale) compared German people to onions (oddly enough, the last cultural training I attended likened Germans to coconuts… they do like their food analogies here) because they have “layers” to their relationships. First you have strangers, then acquaintances, then friends, and then “best friends.” According to Sylvia (it actually works best if you exaggerate the first syllable and really roll the L), there are certain socially acceptable rules about how to interact with people, based on your particular layer. I think it’s a load of crap. Everyone is different, no matter the culture. Some people are friendly and some people are shy. Some friendships takes months to form, others take minutes. The seminar ended up being really good, because I chose to ignore the Rules of the Onion, and as a result met a nice couple who recently moved here from India. The wife is in a similar situation as me: her husband is an employee of Bosch; she is educated and has a degree but doesn’t have a work visa and is thus currently unemployed. She and I found out about something called The International Women’s Club, and are attending together next week. Hopefully this will be a good chance to meet new people who have similar interests and lifestyles. Other possibilities if this doesn’t pan out? Well, Dan’s co-worker invited me to join her a cappella group, which I’ve resisted so far. However, all it takes is listening to a few mash-ups from Glee to have me convinced that I’m exactly what the world of German a cappella is missing… Yeah, it’s probably for the best that IWC works out. Supposedly they do a lot of volunteering, and book clubs, and members get together to have drinks, share each other’s cooking, etc. It’s good to have a back-up plan, though 😉

5.) “How is your health?”

Overall, I’m doing well. I haven’t had any major complications from surgery; my platelet levels have stayed up. My bruises have faded, leaving only shadowy spots that should vanish completely over time. I do have low hemoglobin, for which I’m getting iron infusions. It has helped some with my anemia, but I still need to get my levels higher. The only physical manifestations of the low hemoglobin are fatigue and rapid heartbeat, which are certainly things I can live with. I have been trying to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and other anti-inflammatory foods, avoiding things that cause inflammation, like alcohol and super-starchy foods. Yeah, I don’t recommend this unless absolutely necessary, and I can’t say that I’m particularly stringent about following this plan (how’s a girl going to completely avoid alcohol around the holidays while living in a country that consumes more alcohol per capita than water? And completely avoid bread when the bakeries fill up with so many mouth-watering goodies? Yeah, not going to happen). I am trying, though, and I do think, overall, it has paid off.

6.) “How’s your German coming along?”

I am currently taking 3 hours of German a week from a private tutor. My teacher is a lovely man from Syria. I can look at (most) words now and not cower over their intimidating length. My pronunciation is not perfect, but it has definitely improved. I still swear that certain words are utterly ridiculous, and I have to squint for a very long time before even attempting to pronounce them. My German lessons are helpful when it comes to getting questions answered and being able to practice speaking to a trained ear. Quite often I’ll see a word, try saying it a few times and will think, “Nailed it.” But then I hear it with a true German accent and realize I’ve left off maybe two or three syllables. I guess it’s kind of like saying a word in English with a thick Southern accent as opposed to a non-southern accent: it takes a little practice to learn the difference.

So, now for that booger-of-a-question: “How’s Germany?” The easy thing to do is to respond the same way one responds when someone casually asks, “How are you?” That answer is simple: “Fine/Good/Great/Hanging in there.” Most of the people asking how I’m doing and how Germany is going are friends and family members, not casual acquaintances. I should be able to answer this question honestly, with no problem, right? There are just too many composite questions within that question to be able to justify a one-word response. Sure, I could easily just say, “amazing!” or “great!” but the truth involves a combination of so many things. There are definitely aspects of being here that are amazing- the sweeping vistas of hills and valleys and fields first come to mind- but it’s also scary, overwhelming, stressful, and strange. Some days I feel like the champion of the world, after accomplishing such tiny things as successfully navigating public transportation, carrying out conversations without speaking English, and checking off the items on my shopping list. I want to stand on the top of a building and dance a jig while confetti and balloons are released and a banner waves, proclaiming, “Katie is a triumphant Bad-Ass!” But other days, when it’s 37 degrees and pouring down rain and nothing about going outdoors is easy or appealing, I tend to feel more lonely and sad. And then I feel guilty for being sad, because a voice in my head says, “You’re in Germany! You’re so lucky! You should be enjoying every split second and if you’re not, that means you’re not taking advantage of this opportunity.” Except that making the most of something doesn’t mean just running through a check list before moving on to the next thing- it means soaking up experiences, creating new opportunities, and allowing time for reflection and relaxation. I’m truly enjoying being in a new place, while still getting used to how different things are. I’m grappling with homesickness while simultaneously accepting that I am not a tourist on vacation: this is my new home. I’m easing my way into a lifestyle where I’m not a student, or a full-time employee, and trying to learn how to create a life that’s rewarding without the reward being solely based on productivity. I’m learning to be satisfied with being and not doing. I think it’s one of the hardest lessons to learn. This isn’t to say that I’ve completely ceased to do- obviously things like cleaning, exercise, cooking, writing, and meaningful interaction with humans are important. However, taking time to simply enjoy life – whether it be reading a good book, going for a walk in the sunshine, having a long chat with a friend, eating a delicious meal, staring out the window and getting lost in my imagination- all these things are just as worthwhile, yet somehow always become secondary to productivity. My hope is that by the time I leave Germany I will have better learned how to be satisfied with all the spaces in my day, even those in which I am not actively producing and creating. Because even though I can’t summarize my experiences without mentioning that I am all at once happy, sad, excited, lonely, anxious, intrigued, inspired, overwhelmed, and hopeful, I can say that all of these emotions are typical when one is having an adventure. Maybe that should be my token response when asked for a quick summary of how things are going. While my mind will surely be replaying some version of all the many events that accompany my current transition, I think time and again I will arrive at the same conclusion: My life in Germany is an adventure…Tuba players, gingerbread, bad winter weather, unpronounceable vocabulary words, fairy tale castles, profusion of pork products, blooming Blumen, and all.

 

 

The Good Stuff

Lovely house on our street in Gerlingen.
Lovely house on our street in Gerlingen.

Exactly 3 weeks and 1 day ago Dan and I moved to Stuttgart. We stayed in a hotel up until this past Saturday, when we officially moved into our new apartment. Dan and I knew things would be chaotic at first, but it turns out that my little spoiled American self had no idea just how spoiled I was until tasked with setting up life and playing house in a brand new country. I have lived in a total of 10 apartments in my life, and not including the times when I moved with my family, I have carted my belongings from point A to point B somewhere around 25 times. I am used to the typical stuff that comes with moving: the boxes, phone calls to cable and electric companies, and scrounging up money to cover a deposit. What I have taken for granted, however, is that every place in which I have lived thus far in my life already had, let’s say, basic amenities which I never considered all that “basic”. To come right out with it: I have never had to purchase light fixtures, hire an electrician, and then select and have a kitchen installed. Dan and I have a beautiful brand new apartment. Some of the rooms even have a few pieces of furniture in them. We have toilets and a bathtub and three portable lamps that we rotate from bathroom to bedroom to hallway to living room and of course to the windowsill to serve as a tanning bed for our plants. Also, we have a little mattress that we’ve laid on the floor and covered with sheets and a quilt. I like to call our current lifestyle “apartment glamping”- the latter word meaning “glamorous camping”, which I have never personally done but imagine involves tents with pre-installed commodes, a closet, kitchen, chandeliers, wait staff, and full-length mirrors.

This slightly-unsettled-but-moving-towards-settled feeling is actually kind of fun: We get to customize our apartment! We get to experience the hilarity that ensues when one applies make-up in minimal lighting. We have acquired and built our own IKEA furniture (more on that later…).

IMG_0026We are now the proud owners of a Venus Fly Trap (which, ironically, is native to the Carolinas…). We also have an orchid, and a few other plants whose names I’ve forgotten but whose lives I will surely protect and foster… Some parts of apartment glamping can be pretty great. But that doesn’t change the fact: I want my freaking refrigerator.

Our sad, empty kitchen. IKEA, if you can hear me, that rubber container and drying rack are so lonely they've considered pitching themselves out of the window. But now pressure. I'm sure you're VERY busy...
Our sad, empty kitchen. IKEA, if you can hear me, that rubber container and drying rack are so lonely they’ve considered pitching themselves out of the window. But no pressure. I’m sure you’re VERY busy…

This post is starting to get complain-y. I hate people like me. Not so very long ago, I would look at photos of people living in fun places and be incredibly jealous of the lives I perceived to be adventurous and exotic. I have been given an incredible opportunity and a huge gift. I know that. I really do. I’m currently in a funky transitional stage, but there isn’t a day that goes by where I haven’t had a sharp intake of breath and sense of awe over the beautiful surroundings I get to call home. All it takes is a drive through the rolling hills, with the sweeping vistas of vineyards, copper-crested rooftops, and stretches of cornfields, and I feel my heart swell and my imagination soar. This feeling of being uprooted is similar to how I felt when I moved to Montana in 2008, and much like then, I know that no matter how alien my surroundings may feel, there is just too much beauty around me to take things for granted. Staying indoors all the time is not an option. I’m a big believer that we are the crafters of our own adventures, and we can make them wherever, however, and whenever we choose. But that requires, when possible, going outside. Here, the doing that’s to be done can’t all be done with a laptop.

So the good stuff, right? You want to hear about my hilarious, quirky neighbors; adorable language transgressions at restaurants; treks through the muddy paths of vineyards in worn-out hiking boots… Yeah, still working on that, but Dan and I have had our fair share of adventures.

During our first weekend in Stuttgart, we attended our first, and so far only, soccer game. As I’m sure you know, in Europe, and pretty much everywhere except the United States, people don’t use the term “soccer.” They use the term football, or in Germany, fußball. Stuttgart has our own team and a gigantic stadium. We found out very quickly that despite its typical orderliness and law-abidingness, the city sort of shuts down on days when there are home games. All the rules that normally apply, e.g. not drinking on the subway, seemingly disappear. Law enforcement officers occupy themselves with activities like looking for lost cats, or helping the elderly cross the street, and do so anywhere but in areas over-run with game-goers. People start drinking early in the morning, then grab a few beers to consume during the subway commute, and upon the train’s arrival, the empty bottles get tossed out before entering the gate check at the stadium. And then, just like in the USA, you enter the stadium to find booths filled with food and drink stands, where one is left with no choice but to purchase over-priced pretzels, beer, bratwurst (if you are anyone other than myself), etc., and the party continues. I must say that overall, I enjoyed myself thoroughly, even though our team lost pretty badly. Stuttgart has some die-hard fans; one of them got splashed on the back by half a pint of beer during a rousing chorus of “indecipherable syllable, indecipherable syllable, more words sung by intoxicated Germans that I can’t quite make out, something, something… Tor!” We’ll probably go back for another game. I think I’m going to wear a raincoat.

Other mini-adventures so far have included a trip to the Schwarzwald, i.e. the Black Forest, to visit Feldberg and to stare at the not-so-very-far-away Alps
Other mini-adventures so far have included a trip to the Schwarzwald, i.e. the Black Forest, to visit Feldberg and to stare at the not-so-very-far-away Alps

11998939_10101334540507134_9197286870589145352_nDan and I also took a trip to Frankfurt to visit my good friend Daniel, whom I met in college and have called “DRod” since the first time we met some 12 years ago. DRod was on his way to see his wife, who is studying in Jordan. He had a 9-hour layover in Frankfurt. We decided it would be more fun to hang out together in Frankfurt than to not hang out in Frankfurt. So Dan and I drove the two hours to Frankfurt, fetched DRod from the airport, drove around the city for half an hour looking for parking, and then, like blinking awake from a dream but thinking you’re still dreaming, we emerged from the underground parking lot into a picturesque town square where we were greeted by, not joking, the cheerful tunes of costumed people playing the flute. We had some lunch, climbed a winding, narrow staircase to reach the top of a beautiful old church, and walked along the riverbank in Altstadt. It was a good day.

Let’s see, what else? I would be a hideous, omitting, liar-of-a-blogger if I failed to acknowledge the number of trips and hours we have clocked at IKEA. Prior to moving here, I’d never experienced IKEA, so it was with very, very wide eyes that I navigated its labyrinthine pathways, all of which are marked with arrows to keep the herds of humans migrating in the proper direction, and to maximize viewing opportunities of the “For Display Only” model furniture and suggested room designs. One does not simply see a chair one likes and place it in a shopping cart at IKEA. Oh no- one must look at price tags on select pieces of furniture and mark down their code numbers on tiny pads of paper that are stationed throughout the store. And then, after walking through a monstrous maze of couches, chairs, fake plants, real plants, and model kitchens, you are spat out into a giant warehouse where you must track down the boxes containing the actual dismantled furniture, which correspond to the numbers that have been recorded on your sheet of paper… Yeah, this was Dan’s job. Engineers like using pencils the size of a baby’s finger and writing cryptic numbers and furniture dimensions on small slips of paper (I’m sure that’s not a generalization at all…). My job was to point out stuff I like and then pretty much just disobey IKEA traffic laws, as I cut through displays in order to get in front of the idlers who did not understand the common courtesy rule of leaving space on the left for people to pass you. I don’t know how many IKEA trips we’ve made in total, but we’ve now built 5 bookshelves, a desk (well, Dan built the desk), two chairs, a bench, two tables, a set of patio furniture, a shoe rack, and a coat closet…

Additionally, there are over a dozen ginormous boxes with ready-to-be-made-furniture (Our sofa! Our bed! Our dining room table!) occupying our living room that were delivered merely a few hours ago. You’re welcome, IKEA. Now, please hurry up and bring our kitchen.
Additionally, there are over a dozen ginormous boxes with ready-to-be-made-furniture (Our sofa! Our bed! Our dining room table!) occupying our living room that were delivered merely a few hours ago. You’re welcome, IKEA. Now, please hurry up and bring our kitchen.

As far as upcoming adventures: I start taking German classes in October. My language skills are improving, but I think the classes will definitely help. This coming weekend, Dan and I are traveling to the city of Strasbourg on the France/Germany border to celebrate Dan’s 30th birthday. It’ll be a nice, quiet little retreat, one that we are very much excited about.

So, the thing about living in a new place, especially one that’s on the other side of an ocean, is that one feels the need to share only the good stuff. I’ve been thinking about starting an instagram account in which I post the actual, every day happenings of my life, with an emphasis on the particularly mundane. The truth is, whether one lives in South Carolina or Germany, every day has its inevitable banalities. As humans who are constantly aware of how we appear to others, we tend to share the things about ourselves that are fun and exciting, e.g. taking a trip to a really pretty place; taking photos having fun with friends; sharing news about getting engaged or having a baby. Very rarely does one post a picture on instagram featuring a laptop and the caption, “I’ve been sitting in my pajamas for 3.5 hours binge-watching Netflix” or “Here’s a picture of my boring breakfast, which does not have a custom-made nutmeg and cinnamon feather swirled into the foamy top layer of my coffee, because my drink is in a Tervis cup with a lid.” Part of this may be the desire to generate positivity in our own outlooks on life, but more than that, really, it’s just more exciting to showcase the attractive parts of our lives- even if that version is doubly filtered- once by editing out all the boring stuff and leaving just the good stuff, and then again by actually editing photos with a fancy filter that makes even the palest skin look sun-kissed and glowing.

I think that I am more honest and deliberate with my writing than I am with posting pictures to instagram, or sharing things on facebook, but it’s still easy to justify not writing a blog post when I can occupy myself with other things and maintain a “just wait for the good stuff” attitude. It’s easy to forget that there’s a certain art to remembering to capture every day moments- not just the quietly arranged and staged, or exciting things. Take now, for instance: I am in the spare bedroom of our apartment sitting on a thin mattress covered by a rumpled but colorful square patterned, hand-made quilt from Dan’s aunt; one foot is tucked under my body and the other foot, which happens to be attached to my right leg, is enclosed in a dirty, mustard-yellow sock that I still haven’t removed from this morning’s rainy walk to the grocery store (much less emo than it sounds) and is peaking out of the bottom of my still-damp blue jeans. My laptop is perched on my lap, and I can see a lazy drizzle of rain through the window, whose blinds have been raised to half-mast. I could take a picture of my dirty socks and try to artfully arrange them on the quilt next to a stitched square of a complementary color; that would be a creative and appealing way to make this situation more glamorous, but it’s not really very honest. I think it might be better to just take a picture of my dirty socks and say, “I really should’ve taken these off before putting them on this lovely, hand-made quilt.” Because that’s the truth.

I don’t always remember to take my phone out and take a picture, even during life’s beautiful moments, but that’s probably a good thing. I have a bad track record of almost stepping into on-coming traffic. Some people do better to look up and out and in, to bask in the big picture that’s happening now and report back the details later. I think I’m one of those people. All this being said, I probably will post pretty pictures from my upcoming trip to France with Dan. They probably will not feature my dirty socks. And if I do create an additional instagram account featuring all the things in life that do not glitter, I’ll be sure to let you know. 😉

Enjoying our first dinner on the balcony of our new apartment: One of life's beautiful moments.
Enjoying our first dinner on the balcony of our new apartment: One of life’s beautiful moments.

Go Places

I leave for Germany tomorrow. TOMORROW. What??? Life of late has consisted of a flurry of packing, list-making, Goodwill purges, and multiple trips to Target for yet another forgotten toiletry item. Dan and I, with the help of my amazingly patient parents, have now managed to put all of our belongings into one of the following categories: give-away, throw-away, place in long-term storage, have shipped to Germany via air (a 2 week journey), have shipped to Germany via sea freight (a 2 month journey), or place in luggage to be checked and brought with us when we board the plane. Dan and I don’t sign the lease on our apartment until the 31st, so we’ll be in a hotel for a few weeks while we purchase furniture and await the arrival of our other belongings. Call me high maintenance, but when I move into my new home, I’d like it to consist of more than a floor, ceiling, and walls.

Certain items some would call essential are difficult to come by in Germany, so Dan and I will be checking the largest suitcases we could find, stuffed to the brim with items purchased in bulk, including but definitely not limited to: Pepto-Bismol, Tums, Advil, Aspirin, Sudafed, Tylenol, nasal spray, Claritin, Gummy Vitamins (Because I’m 6, and prefer my vitamins to come in candy form. The bottle actually reads, “Tastes so good your children won’t even know you’re sneak-feeding them nutrition masquerading as a sweetly soft, bite-sized bear”…or something along those lines…), and basically any other non-prescription medication you can think of that will cure/relieve the symptoms of any temporary illness or condition that one could possibly become afflicted with. Pharmacies work differently over there, or so I have been warned, and one can’t simply walk into a drug store and purchase a bottle of Tylenol. The Germans think doctors should decide what medications people take, and also that you probably are being a whiny little wuss and just need to suck it up and shake it off. What can I say? Germans are hard-core. I, however, am not, thus our efforts at preemptively curing any and all future ailments with lots of reliable non-Rx drugs.

Unfortunately, along with the packing, adrenaline, and excitement of moving also comes a modicum of heartbreak. It is with red, bleary eyes and smeared make-up that I write this post, just fresh from wrapping up my month of farewells to friends and family (excluding Mom…let’s not go there yet). These good-byes involved attending my amazing cousin’s amazing wedding, seeing my oldest friend and her new baby, Sunday brunch send-offs, tear-soaked hugs on my parents’ front porch, and most recently, more tear-soaked hugs, this time in public, with a smidge of alcohol coursing through my body. I have said good-bye to my father. Next up is my farewell to Mom (Sniff!). I’ve had my tear ducts professionally drained in preparation. I knew this would be hard, and so it is. Some people just become so deeply intertwined with your daily life that it doesn’t register that they could ever be more than a car ride, or short plane ride, away.

I don’t always follow my own advice (actually, it’s more accurate to say I pretty much never follow my own advice), but I do journal a whole awful lot. Sometimes I even go back and read my old journal entries and get smacked with a little epiphany provided by my younger self (Dear 16,17,18, and _____ year-old Katie: He’s just not that into you. Or, he’s a little too into you. I know at the time it seemed like a good idea to go out with him, and then write hundreds of pages analyzing him and his behavior. And you know what? You were young, and you are forgiven. It’s going to be okay. It’ll just take you the entire decade of your twenties to figure that out). And the advice gleaned from my younger self is this: Life endures. Shit happens. You think it will break you; you can’t imagine how you’ll ever not love a certain boy, or that you’ll ever not be consumed with grief over the loss of a loved one, but the cracks are never so big that they can’t be mended. Sometimes, they can even be glued together so well you don’t notice the cracks were ever there at all. Life is riddled with potholes, ocean-sized puddles, and bruises, all of which can cause the kind of pain you can’t imagine ever being healed. But the days turn into weeks into months into years. Sketches on individual pages are rifled through your fingers until they become a blur. The individual stick figure in a singular position on a single sheet of paper vanishes in a flash as a story, a life in motion, emerges instead.

There’s no possible way to replace the people and pets (double sniff!) I have here. But I know this feeling that I’m feeling; I recognize these emotions. It’s the whole “Life imitates Art” thing, and I’m responding to my life the same way I do as when I am reading a great book or watching a great movie: I’m forced to think, laugh, smile, and very often, I’m forced to cry, too. Though in some ways this departure feels like a loss, I ultimately realize that nothing is being taken from me- I’m being given something…something that happens to be the size of a country-a continent, even.

It may be a while before the sopping pile of Kleenexes ceases to litter my bedside table and fill my waste bins, but that time will come. It literally has to come, because even the extra-soft-for-sensitive-skin Kleenexes rub my nose raw, and my poor little nostrils can only take so much. Plus, snot is gross, and not very becoming.

I’m rather fond of ending stories or passages with quotations, particularly song lyrics. I’ve had a lot of songs swirling around in my brain lately. I even made up new words to “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (I appreciate you, Peter, Paul, and Mary, but let’s be honest: you were/are ginormous hippies. And that’s coming from a self-proclaimed free spirit. But I do love you, and if we ever meet, I have some questions about “Puff the Magic Dragon”). But there’s one song that I’ve loved for a very long time. This song, “Go Places” by The New Pornographers, (does typing “pornographers” automatically get me flagged in some database? People who are watching me: I swear I didn’t come up with the band’s name!) does a pretty great job providing a summary of all the scary but ultimately best parts about life, adventure/exploration, and how to play the hand of cards you are dealt…Here’s a snippet:

“Yes a heart should always go one step too far…

Come head on, full circle

Our arms fill with miracles

Play hearts kid; they work well

Like magic; play aces

Stay with me; go places

Once more for the ages.”

So this is my summary of another’s summary, and also advice to self that I should write in a journal so I’ll look back in 3 years, read it, and then actually take it seriously: It’s simple, really. Good-byes are hard, but they are generally followed by something that makes them feel slightly less hard. So, take risks; go one step too far. Play hearts. Play aces. Like (I’d maybe even substitute love) Magic. Fill your arms with miracles. Stay with me (in spirit, and physically, preferably in Germany). And also, go places… And if that place should happen to be Germany, the girl you see jumping up and down wildly and waving her arms- that’s me, and I’m inviting you to stay. She may have been crying the last time you saw her, but she’s better now. She realizes moving to new places, going away, doesn’t mean forgetting and leaving all the good things behind. She also realizes she’s getting an opportunity to move to freaking Germany to have a journey of a lifetime and she’d be an ungrateful wench to not seize this opportunity by the neck.

So, in my own way, that’s what I’m doing: I am seizing this opportunity, and filling my arms with my own little stash of miracles. And maybe the next time we meet, we can share the miracles we’ve gathered with one another. My stash will probably have some Ritter Sport (i.e. delicious type of chocolate made in Stuttgart), if that’s any incentive. 🙂