From Under a Rock
I feel like I am coming out of hibernation.
While crouching here in this dark place full of hazy sickness, I reached out to flick my fingers at the events passing by without being able to grasp them. Not every winter felt like this one did. It has been grey since November, the “dunkelster Winter seit Jahrzehnten” and make no mistake about it. The dark time, the transitional time, the time with a beginning, middle and end all at once. Somehow disconnected from everything and most everyone.
Then, while walking a few days ago, I felt so interconnected with everything around me, like I could suddenly breathe again. Now I feel like I am walking with the literal Spring in my step. I feel like me me me and only me.
What has this been?
• My mind settling into a new country — away from my family and friends, away from all the things I knew as home, away from the place that both caused and healed my anxiety, and as of mid-December 2012 without the aid of any anti-anxiety medication… and tackling that anxiety here.
• My body settling into a new country — the water is different! I always had very clear facial skin and I am now breaking out all the time, though everything else remains the same. Perhaps a bit drier in general (I have to lotion up my hands every time they come in contact with water)… I also got my non-hormone IUD, so no more hormones in my body.
• Being sick with sinus infections and/or allergies since December and even barely being able to enjoy a trip to NYC.
• Getting used to a completely different university system with little to no guidelines, rules or due dates.
• Understanding how a different country works in terms of every category I can think of… jobs, healthcare/doctors, general living, what kinds of cooking ingredients I can easily get and which ones I have to search for, what sort of food I will get in a restaurant when I expect something entirely different… most surface-y things here are not so far from what I am used to, but then I come across something that completely throws me off guard.
• Understanding that where I came from is somewhere I never want to live again in my foreseeable future and that thought is simultaneously comforting and perfect, and also guilt-ridden and scary.
• Growing stronger and happier on my own and together with my partner
• Seeing myself overcoming personal boundaries and bettering myself as a person
• Last but not least, learning the German language is no easy feat. Being able to reach some sort of a fluent level without classes is something else entirely, and there has been no time, money or energy for them.
• Being perpetually preoccupied with having very, very little money and trying to find a job.
Needless to say, it has been nothing short of impossible to try and keep up an active social life here. It is exhausting to extend my energy to others both here in this city and across the ocean. I want to give so much of my self to others when I am close to them, as I always have, and that is hard when I am concentrating so much on myself! I appreciate every single interaction I have with a friend here, however, even if they are far and few between. I greatly care for the closest friends I do have in Berlin, and I am thankful for the growing number of them.
As spring always starts things anew, I am now more relaxed in most aspects of my life. My health and body feel significantly better, my mind is calmer most of the time, my schedule of classes next semester is light and includes a German grammar course, I have a student job that I really like which supplies me with plenty of money to save up, and I just feel more comfortable with everything around me.
Of course, when I wrote all of the above, I was feeling particularly swell despite the weather and my back aching terribly. The weather seems to be dragging on, snowing over and over, and I can only hope there is a day in the near future where I can wear sneakers rather than heavy-duty winter boots. In preparation for spring, for continued transformations, for days that are up and down (today being significantly more of a down) and to let my neck breathe… I cut my hair short. Not as drastically short as in 2009, but short enough to let myself speak without opening my mouth, and give myself a shock of confidence when I catch a glimpse of it in a window.
I’ll wait here for spring to start, and dust out my winter cave until then.
Is there a set period of time that defines when you are allowed to call a place your home?
I’ve always had many homes.
The apartment in New York City, living with my mom and dad and my sister. That was always home base, of course. It’s where I had love, a soft, warm mother always there physically and mentally without question (and who continues to be absolutely right about everything, no matter how hard I may fight against it at first), and everything else that comes with being a family, good and frustrating alike. It’s where every part of me was accepted, and every friend, even the most laughable ones. There was dog hair and books everywhere and little violins in and out each week. I loved every smell, squeak of the wooden floors and every solitary snuggle into my double layer of twin mattresses on the floor.
I had my old best friend’s apartment to call another home, right across the building. A shivery jaunt through the lobby, usually in just socks or slippers, and up the other elevator which had two doors. Her apartment was bigger and filled with more expensive items and “shabby chic” before I knew what that meant. This was where another mother was, and she was cold and wise and flawless and platinum blonde. In every way she was that I might have admired then, I could never fully touch with hands nor heart. I would confuse fuse her image together with Marilyn Monroe’s in my head, oddly enough, and I could do nothing but marvel at the shiny black tubes of lipstick or mascara in the bathroom. A scent of powder, sprinkled over frosted glass, never left my senses.
Those were homes I knew since I was a child. My other homes came later.
At my best friend’s house, I couldn’t call it a home, but it was a place I could roost very happy for comfortable stretches of hours and days. There was nothing mine about it, no connection to my childhood, but it was mine when I brought my bag of things over for the night. It was also mine when we spun around together hosting barbeques or parties like we were much older than we were, her sitting in one of the chairs and me at the stove cooking madly despite the summer heat. Glittering, dark rainbow mosaic pieces on the kitchen walls were my inspiration and iced coffee my fuel.
I lived in another family’s home, in another country not belonging to me. This house was not my home, even with a fridge and frozen vegetables at my disposal, not with someone else calling me from across the city. At the end of an evening, in the cold and dark, I would rip myself away and go back to the place I lived in. Sitting in the grass with small white flowers, I could imagine relaxation for a second, if I were somewhere else. Exploring a countryside of tiny rolling hills and garbage tossed away in crevices, it would have been satisfying under different circumstances, the ones I was craving. Prickly guilt found it’s way into my stomach, but I did my best until I knew I was done and ready to move to my new home.
My home is where I live today. The home that welcomed me from the second I stepped off the plane, and let me sleep and recover and understand and love. The home that I began subtly making my own, and accumulated my belongings little by little. The home today that I share and create with someone else, collecting a piece of furniture here and a kitchen tool there. The small pieces, the sparkly things I brought along, the colors I splash onto the walls, and the love I cultivate, that just won’t stop growing. Here is the home I was offered unconditionally, the one I shape, where I reflect on all my other homes from past years. The home I curl into and sigh with relief, while I happily dial the number to reach across the Atlantic with my voice, speaking of the love that keeps me warm.
Where Am I?
Over a solid year of living in Berlin has gone by, and I’ve now come to the realization that I will be spending most of my time in Europe. With the second visit back to NYC, I’ve been more encouraged to never fully live in my home country again.
Without experiencing life in a country as a citizen (or a status close enough to it), you can’t make this decision fully. That is to say, I am not a German citizen and since I’m a student, even when I begin working, I still don’t have to pay taxes. But that aside, I live in an apartment, I experience the non-tourist aspects of Berlin including family and friends, I am enrolled at a German university in the same way any other citizen would be, and I’ve dealt with offices and doctors and healthcare and learning to find the things I need throughout the course of a year in my life.
Studying abroad for a semesterdoes not count. Particularly if you’re in a situation like I was in 2010. I lived with all Americans, spoke English 95% of the time, was encouraged only once or twice to meet German students, and basically stayed inside my little study abroad bubble. 4-5 months is the honeymoon period, when you are in another country. You still feel like everything is magical and the food is so different and “wow, all of these products are in another language!” Then, you go back home with the idea that the country you were in is so much better than your own and you can’t wait to go back! But that’s not the basis for choosing to live in another place.
Berlin enticed me on some kind of level I couldn’t, and still can’t, explain. I knew I wanted to go back, with no concrete plan in mind, and just an au pair family set up. I could go the romantic way and say that it was a connection between me an M calling me back, even though we weren’t in any sort of relationship in 2010 or in the time between then and when I returned at the end of 2011. Thought is is interesting, since we were together since the day I returned. I knew that in my heart when I was with him in person again. But personal connections aside, there are things that cannot be explained when you resonate in another country so deeply that everything you do is in order to get there.
NYC holds my anxieties and old selves from when I was young. Berlin is where I let them go and found a new version of myself. Without a doubt, this is not the last version of myself, but I know I like this one more than the previous ones. The idea of returning to Berlin after a trip to NYC is a refreshing and freeing one. Of course, it would be ideal to not have to leave my family behind. It would be ideal for them to live in Berlin in their own apartment not far from the one M and I live in. But their life is here in NYC, and I am making mine in Berlin where I feel like a better person. I definitely emotionally regress when I come to visit, but I’ll mature more and that won’t happen as much in future visits. As a note, I also enjoy being able to have had my whole day when I speak to my family, since Berlin is 6 hours ahead, and have all my thoughts gathered and plenty to say on the phone or on Skype.
As much as I love the little things in NYC, like certain easily accessible items or brands that I am used to cooking with, the only part here that holds my heart is my family and a small group of friends. Granted, that’s a pretty large part of my heart, but Berlin feels more and more like the place I belong.
I have been babysitting for over a decade, but never before the last year have children been so constantly on my mind. Weeks go quickly enough that they are hard to process normally, and when you have most of two days chunked out of the week dedicated to interaction with two little girls, your mind starts to be permeated by it. I find myself thinking of kid-related anecdotes when I am doing daily routines on other days, and often relate have something to contribute to a conversation when it can be linked to children. I suppose the au pair year started this, though those girls were older, but then hearing about kids from other au pairs, and doing the odd babysitting job here and there and finally settling with my twice a week family now. It also doesn’t help my child-addled brain to be in a relationship with someone where the possibility of future children with him is quite real…
Anyway, there is no point to this musing other than the realization that being around children, particularly young ones, encourages growth in me as a person. I have become more patient and have replaced what I consider to be less emotions like anger and frustration with understanding and patience. It hasn’t made me more eager to have children sooner, but to appreciate everything I have now and to keep learning and growing from them as much as they learn and grow from me.
Today began the Winter semester at university, and my first class will be tomorrow! I went to our department orientation last week, and it’s so small! I feel like I’ll be able to know everyone on a first name basis. The full department (English and American Studies for BA and MA) is much larger, but my department for the MA American Studies is teeny weeny. My classes for this semester are as follows:
- Monday: German from 10-12 and a film theory/analysis class from 4-6 with optional film viewing from 6-9 (but I can watch the films on my own time)
- Tuesday: Creative writing from 12-2 and American Art from 4-6
- Wednesday: Romance of Medicine from 10-12
- Thursday: US-Poland relations from 12-2 and a class on history of the Berlin Wall from 4-6
I’ve got my babysitting on Wednesdays from 3-9 and Fridays from 5-11. My free time will be spent studying, going to the gym, seeing what friends I’m able to see and of course spending time with Marcel. Fortunately, the two of us can even go home together from Mitte three days of the week because I end class the same time he ends his internship for the day. Hooray!
The necklace Marci gave me for my birthday :D
It’s the first birthday I’ve ever spent away from my family. No traditional birthday table, gifts and cards staggered over days and even weeks… it’s a transitional, transformational year… I am settled, to an extent, but I can start traditions in the next few years. I am happy with this now : )
Autumn is Coming
Now Autumn’s fire burns slowly along the woods and day by day the leaves fall and melt.
Life as an ex-au pair, expat, living here in Berlin is wonderful of course. I heard back very early from Freie Universität, and enrolled because I had disappointingly heard nothing from Humboldt Universität. Then, in one glorious moment, I heard that HU was belatedly responding to everyone, not just me! Within days, I received my acceptance. Went through yet another rigamarole of getting all my papers in order to enroll, and I received my semester ID/Metro card this morning :) Now I can say I am officially a student in Berlin at Humboldt Universität! Students have it REAL good here.
My income is from babysitting for two utterly lovely girls, whose parents I am becoming fast friends with. They live in Mitte/Friedrichshain, which is quite across the city from where we live, but that’s okay because now my university, gym and ‘job’ are all in one area! I don’t have to jump around, up and down the city. Phew. The girls are almost 2 and almost 4, and my love for them is very rapidly growing. The combination of the two reminds me so much of my lovely 2 (now 3!?) Ginny in NYC, and I miss her all the time.
General life lesson, as of late, under ‘read more’ because it’s not as positive as the rest of this post is!
The above pictures are all from where I now live in Berlin. I’m happy to say I am no longer an au pair! Happy because I have a plan, I have a student’s life, a place of my own to live with M, and freedom to do what I would like each day. I will say, though, I will miss my two au pair girls in a lot of ways. I don’t regret a second living with and taking care of them. Even M said he’ll miss the stories I tell from each day. But now, there is a younger girl, A, who is taking over for me in their house. She pretty much has no other ties in Berlin, is my sister’s age! (18), and has fresher energy. Her year is going to be wonderful.
If there is one thing I learned from this au pair experience, it’s that there truly is a difference in the experience if you are older or younger. I feel the prime age for being an au pair is between 18 and 20 years old. This sounds like a small window of time, but in those ages, you are probably not feeling the urge to live independently, or to have an adult life. Everyone’s situation is different, of course, and there can naturally be older au pairs who also don’t mind living with children. For myself, I wanted a break after graduating from university in order to figure out what I wanted to do. I thought I would need a full year, but about 6 months was sufficient for this process in my mind. After that point, I found myself getting frustrated and impatient with the girls, which isn’t fair to them and isn’t their fault at all. I was (hopefully) not a terrible au pair, though! Judging from the girls’ reactions when I left for a weekend or for vacation, I didn’t do such a bad job : )
This weekend is my “final” goodbye to them and picking up the rest of my things from the house. I put final in quotations, because I truly do love them, my host parents included, and have no intention of never seeing them again! Also considering I am friends with their new au pair, I’m sure that there will be plenty of visits!
All The Things
Even in another country, another life, things must go on. I live here knowing that this is not the country I grew up in, and some days are harder than others, having that constant reminder. But nonetheless, I have found it important to keep that in mind, while continuing to do as many things as I would do if I were back in NYC.
(Also, my instinct is still to write “back at home” instead, which indicates that even almost a year does not make the moving process complete.)
In the time I have been an au pair, I have let other parts of my life happen- that includes falling in love, making future plans with that love, becoming part of another family, planning my academic career, and strengthening myself physically. In the past two months, I’ve even started to wean off of my anti-anxiety medication. While the past two weeks have been difficult in particular for this process, which makes me feel rather surreal in the first place, I seem to have rebooted with the news I received this morning.
I was officially accepted into the North American MA program at Freie Universität :D
…I can legally stay in Berlin with a student visa for two years
…I can take German classes for very little money
…I have access to German healthcare
…I will have student jobs offered to me
I know things will still be hard sometimes, but today has been perfect :)