Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What's a Girl Like Me Doing in a Place Like This?

Some context to this piece: I think I wrote this about 4 years ago or so. We had been living in Germany for a couple of years by this point. It was just something I started writing. I didn't know exactly where I was going with it at the time.

Anyway, I was just going through some old floppy disks this morning and I came across this. I had completely forgotten about it, but I realize now that this is more or less a brainstorming session for the memoir I started writing early last year about our life in Germany. Many of the same thoughts made their way into the prologue.


It’s kind of interesting, living overseas. You get to see what it’s like being “the other” for a change, having people look at you because of your American mannerisms and your inability to speak their language. For once, you are the strange foreigner, working hard to try to fit into their mold. It’s a very eye-opening experience, let me tell you. There are times when I find myself feeling awkward and embarrassed while trying to complete the most mundane of tasks, such as buying produce at the grocery store. Things are similar, but different. And if, God forbid, the cashier at the grocery store tries to speak to me, that deer in headlights look I give her always forces her to switch to English without me even having to ask. Fortunately for me, I live in a community with a lot of foreigners from many different countries. English is the lingua franca here. Most people in the area speak it well, even if it’s not their native language.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve dreamed of living abroad for a long time. I took French in high school and fantasized about studying at the Sorbonne, reading fine works of literature and having deep discussions in French over a croissant and a café au lait. Except I hate coffee. But that’s only a minor detail. In reality, I barely learned enough French to order a café au lait. And besides that, my aunt had many French friends about my age that came and stayed with her during the summer. Trying to converse with them shattered any illusions I had about an academic life in Paris. I felt like an awkward, bumbling idiot, not a breezy Francophile college student who sits in cafes and reads Le Monde. Yet even fifteen years later, there is a romance about that image that appeals to me.

French lost its allure after high school. I moved on to college and majored in English Literature, fantasizing about living in London and discussing Shakespeare over some fish and chips and a beer at the pub. Except that I hate beer. But cider with black currant makes a fine substitute. My dream to live in England partially came true. For one brief and brilliant summer during college, I was privileged to participate in a study abroad program in Bath. No, it wasn’t London, but Bath was exciting and beautiful and has a great literary history as well. And we took some trips to London anyway. And yes, I did get to discuss Shakespeare over fish and chips. I’ve had a love affair with England ever since, and I would jump at the chance to live there if the opportunity presented itself. That is one fantasy that I think will never fade, especially since I speak the language.

Ultimately, I ended up living in Europe, but not where I thought I would. Oddly enough, I am living in Germany. I’m not a student (at least not in the academic sense; I am a student of life), and I don’t spend my time in cafes or pubs. I didn’t fall head over heels in love with a European and follow him here on a whim (yet another old fantasy of mine). I fell in love with a perfectly wonderful American who happened to be in the military. He can’t discuss Shakespeare over fish and chips at a pub, but he will drink beer. He can’t speak French over a café au lait, but he will eat croissants. When we started dating, the possibility of living in Europe never really entered our minds. But as he started thinking about a possible assignment in Germany, I vowed to learn how to polka and cook a mean bratwurst, neither of which I do now.

We live in a small village in a rural area near the Dutch border. It’s not nearly as exciting as a big city like Paris or London, but it has its own charm. I’ve grown quite fond of sheep and goats. Seeing them everyday, you learn to love them. I have even gotten used to the smell of fertilizer. This truly is a world apart from my American hometown, which, as a capital city, offered much more in the way of entertainment than watching a cow munch on grass. But there is a certain something about this place, I don’t know what exactly, that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Despite living in the middle of what seems to be nowhere, we are ideally situated on the continent, so that most major cities are within a few hours’ drive. Paris is roughly five hours away, Brussels two, Amsterdam, almost three. Not every place is easily within our grasp. Spain would require a flight, as does Italy. England too, but at least the airfares within Europe are cheap. I may not be living anyone’s fantasy life in a world-class European city, but I have it pretty damn good.

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