Scotland Part 2: The Panoramic Highlands

It was impossible not to look everywhere at once. Deep grey skies. Scotch-brown grasses that covered the mountains like ratty blankets. Tree-lined roads that erupted into steely blue expanses of the lochs, castles sitting heavily on their edges. We’d drive until we hit water, get out, take it in, listening to the strange silence of being nearly completely alone. And then turn we’d turn around and drive back again.

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Eilean Donan Castle
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The view from Kilt Rock, Isle of Skye

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Waiting for the Hogwarts Express

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Scotland Part 1: Edinburgh and a Taste of the Lowlands

“Tell me why you’ve always wanted to go to Scotland,” Tim says. We are fresh out of Edinburgh, heading north into the Highlands. Tim has spent the last three months on business in the UK, so driving on the left side of the road doesn’t faze him, though it is still strange for me to glance to my right and see him driving. We have three days of driving and exploration ahead of us—plenty of time for deep conversations and silly car games, self-reflection and stares out the window.

 


The natural view out the window is largely the reason I wanted to come to Scotland. Edinburgh as a city never ranked so high on my list. The appreciation I did have Scotland for before I came (which amplified significantly since our arrival last Monday), is ironically tied to a landscape. I remember standing in the hallway of a friend’s apartment in California. We were getting ready to leave, and she was telling me about her recent trip to Edinburgh—how much she loves the city and the vibe. I was tugging on a shoe, starting at a set design sketch she’d made for Waiting for Godot while I listened. (To give some context, the setting in Waiting for Godot is described as: “A country road. A tree.” Her sketch was of a black tree against a strange orange background. The image, and the association with Scotland, stuck.

But Edinburgh, of course, is much more than a country road and a tree. It’s bustling and impressive, with old buildings in thick sandstone rising up all around you. Edinburgh Castle crowns one towering hill, the buildings of the University crowd another. There’s a nice tension of heaviness and refinement throughout the city; you get a sense that things are solidly built, but also of a delicateness—an appreciation for finer detail. And in between tea rooms and elegant hotels, there’s a strong sense of Scottish pride.

We arrived on October 31. The clocks here in Europe had already changed back an hour, so by the time we landed it was getting dark. We had booked a night at the Ibis Hotel by St. Andrew’s Square, and were greeted with Halloween treats upon checkin. Jack-o-lanterns grinned from the hotel bar as we headed back out into the night for our dinner reservation at Whiski Rooms, a whiskey lounge meets bistro that serves a modern-take on Scottish cuisine. Our table wasn’t quite ready for us, so we started the evening with what would become the first of many whiskey samples—a flight featuring drams from Glen Moray, Glen Grant, Aberlour, and Craggenmore. The whiskey made us adventurous: for dinner, Tim had the beef and bone marrow pie, paired with a Talisker. I ordered the haggis (paired with a Laphraoig whiskey) and was more than surprised to find it delicious.

We stepped back into the drizzle in search of the city’s Samhuinn celebration. Lucky for us, all we had to do was turn left and listen for the drums. The rain increased steadily as a parade of painted dancers writhed towards Parliament Square, dancing and waving gigantic flaming torches. The official writeup from the Beltane Fire Society sums it up nicely:

“The story follows the ideas of the overthrowing of Summer by Winter, with a stand-off between the Summer and Winter Kings. This is overseen by the Cailleach, a Celtic representation of the Goddess, or Divine Hag. The transformation from Summer to Winter is supported by the energies and interactions of the Summer and Winter courts – through performance, music and dance. The narrative focuses on this conflict and its resolution, but also focuses on the transition that many aspects of life take during the changing of the seasons.”

Watching the celebration was a culmination of exactly what fascinates me about Scotland—this sense of wildness, spookiness, unapologetic brashness. If Edinburgh and the Lowlands were Scotland on “good behavior”, I was looking forward to getting out of the city and seeing the untamed sides of the country: the Scottish Highlands.

Dear America: Election Reflection

Forgive me if this post is a little meandering, I was glued to the screen all night watching the election unfold. It felt strange to be far away during such a huge (and hopefully historic) event. I told Tim on our goodnight call that I missed home and wished I could be there to celebrate with the women in my life when Hillary won.

I was never cocksure of her victory, nor was I the wholehearted supporter of her that I was of Barack. I didn’t always agree with her, and at times, I wanted her to just open up already—her guardedness and scriptedness were almost as exhausting as Trump’s bombasticity.

But I recognized in her campaign fundamental aspects of my own life—how it feels to be the woman the men in meetings keep interrupting, how it feels when a man tells you the way you think is “cute”, how it feels to be intelligent and opinionated when society expects you to be docile and quiet. Like many, many women watching her campaign, I felt years of deep frustration rising. I wanted it to explode, so that we could heal. I thought we had momentum on our side. The same hope that buoyed me eight years ago sat in the back of my throat as I woke yesterday morning and wore my white and read the news and cheered my friends and family at home for voting.

But as the hours slunk away, the numbers on the New York Times site grew in stride with a numbing realization that I’d been wrong. About when Trump hit the 270 electoral vote count, a friend texted from the States and asked how I was feeling. “Shame?” he asked.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about all morning. I felt self-conscious on the bahn to work, as if everyone could tell that I was American. (Possibly they could, when I began to tear up as Hillary conceded.) My colleagues shook their heads in disbelief when I walked in. I met a half-American friend for coffee and when we tried to talk to each other, we found ourselves literally speechless.

Am I ashamed? That would mean that I am embarrassed by the way the majority of my country voted. I’m not. I understand how it could happen and why it did—as Americans, we have long come to value entertainment over education, choosing willful ignorance and fear over doing what’s right, especially when it feels inconvenient or too risky. This understanding could lead two ways, one of which, certainly, is shame.

But the other, and the one I feel today very deeply, is disappointment. I had such high expectations of you, America. I thought we were moving forward. I had a hope that this country still had the decency and the reservoirs of strength to not let fear take the wheel. I thought that you were smart enough, and self-aware enough, to realize that though Hillary might not be your top choice, she was still the best choice. That even if your candidate didn’t make the ballot, choosing not to vote or to vote for a 3rd-party candidate with no shot of winning was a sabotage of selfishness.

In one of the email leaks the nugget came out that Hillary, in a private speech, said that politicians ought to have a private opinion and a public opinion. Many of her opponents used this statement to reinforce the idea that she couldn’t be trusted. But I think it sums up a very essential truth that we, as Americans, seem to have forgotten. Being a politician isn’t about making your voice heard. It’s about speaking for the people. Just because gay marriage doesn’t apply to me personally doesn’t mean that it should not be offered to those who want it. Or just because I would not personally have an abortion doesn’t mean that no one should have abortions. A responsible citizen and a responsible politician do the same things—they make well-informed decisions with the greater good in mind.

And in my opinion, this translates to voting decision as well. Even if Hillary wasn’t your personal top choice for politician, looking objectively at her credentials and experience it is beyond a doubt that she would be the best leader for our country. As the old proverb says, “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” We were each those old men in this election cycle, and I’m disappointed that more of us didn’t realize the responsibility we carried—whether you voted Trump, Clinton, 3rd-party, or not at all.

We will continue to be those old men in the next four years, and keeping that perspective is what is motivating me right now. It is easy to feel hopeless and defeated now, but if I learned anything in the last eight years, it’s that when you feel the most frustrated is when you should take the most action (#dontboovote). Nihilism gets us nowhere. Ennui gets us nowhere. Cynicism gets us nowhere.

It was a stunning defeat, America (liberals, progressive, hopefuls, all). So give yourself a chance to breathe and process, and then pull yourself back together. We have work to do, and a long road still to walk. When you get tired, take my hand. We are, and will be, stronger together.

Being a Faraway Friend

If we’re friends, chances are I’ve imagined your death. If we’re close friends, chances are I imagine your death on a regular basis. Does that sound weird and off-putting? I promise I’ll justify it. 

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What prompted this confession was a fascinating piece recently put out by BBC Travel. Bhutan’s dark secret to happiness talks about how Bhutanese culture promotes thinking about death on a constant basis in order to maintain happiness. “In Bhutanese culture,” the author writes, “one is expected to think about death five times a day.” Research has apparently shown that thinking about death relieves the psychological threat of dying by compensating with thoughts of happiness. The sum of the article was basically YOLO—seize the day and appreciate the things you might not ordinarily notice.

Okay, but thinking about your own death has nothing to do with imagining the deaths of your friends. But for me, this sort of contemplation leads me to same sort of “You Only Live Once” mentality when it comes to relationships. Rather than reflecting after the actual loss of someone I love and care about, that, hey I should have spent more time with them, or I wish I had checked in more with so-and-so, I get a chance to correct my course before the dreaded “It’s too late”.

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Living abroad is an amazing experience, but it is also a humbling one. I hit the 6-month mark of my move to Germany at the start of last month, and am feeling myself settle into one of the roughest phases of culture shock. The “honeymoon” of moving is over and now’s the point that homesickness and feelings of loneliness start to take over. I’m combating it two ways—by making sure I’m meeting new people here in Hamburg, and by giving the relationships back home plenty of nourishment.

In today’s age of technology, there’s absolutely no reason at all that someone who lives far away should be thought of as “gone”. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to check in with two faraway friends every week—whether by a FaceTime call or a long email or a simple Facebook post letting them know they were on my mind. Moving frequently in my early twenties meant creating friendships across the globe, but sustaining those relationships means making an effort. And occasionally, that effort requires an imaginary eulogy to remind me of what I might be missing. 

Drafting your fake eulogies gives me a chance to reflect on what I love about you—to pluck out my favorite memories and breath new life into them. To remind myself that I am so lucky to have such a variety of people in my life—that these people fill my life with joy and silliness, with culture and intellectual conversations. With fierce opinions and crazy dreams, with tolerance and optimism. With inspirational words that keep me going, and comforting ones to remind me that I’m not alone—no matter how far I range from home. 

Speicherstadt in Photos

Sometimes I think the reason I fell so hard in love with Hamburg is because it reminds me so much of Boston. And nothing recalls Boston so much as the bricked façades and minty patina of copper of the Speicherstadt, Hamburg’s “City of Warehouses”.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Speicherstadt is the largest warehouse district in the world where the buildings “float” on wooded foundations. It’s the home of Hamburg’s old port workings; historically, these warehouses stored coffee, tea, tobacco, spices, and in more modern times, oriental carpets. Nowadays it is home mostly to museums, galleries, and the occasional advertising agency (mine included). I spend most of my lunch breaks wandering through the red and black maze, eyeing all of the intricate detailing and brickwork. Here are some shots of my favorites.

I got a Blue Card! What is a Blue Card?

Americans abroad and at home know this election cycle is no joke. My timeline lately has been flooded with comments, jokes, and threats to flee the country. Well, I’ve already fled the country, but additional salvation came today, in the form of a little card from the utterly unpronounceable Ausländerangelegenheiten (er, Foreign Affairs office).

“I got my Blue Card!” I cheered to my German friends.

“That’s awesome!” “Congrats!” “Woohoo!” “So…ah. What is a Blue Card?”

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Simply, a Blue Card is a new-ish work and residence permit for non-European Union nationals who hold what the EU considers Specialized Jobs. For those familiar with American visas, I think the closest approximation is a cross between an O-1 Visa and a Green Card—marrying specialized knowledge with a pathway towards unlimited (permanent) EU residency. This specialized knowledge is demonstrated through academics; basically, if you hold a Master’s degree or higher that is specific to your field of industry, you could qualify. The other qualifier is making a minimum annual salary. It comes in the form of a tricked-out card that can be scanned and holds your biometric data. Looking at the thing is pretty cool—it’s covered in holographs and hidden patterns.

This all sounds very straightforward, but in truth, it’s pretty confusing. This is largely because the Blue Card is a fairly new permit, and not everyone is clear on the process or the conditions that need to be met. I visited three different government offices—the Hamburg Welcome Center, the main Hamburg District Office, and finally, my neighborhood District Office. According to the Hamburg Welcome Center, I did not qualify for the visa because my M.A. degree was not in their database. I could pay 200 Euro to get my degrees transferred, but in their opinion, it was not likely I would be approved because my institution wasn’t on the list. According to the main District Office, I didn’t qualify because of the industry sector in which I work (I guess it wasn’t “specialized” enough). My neighborhood office looked at my paperwork, said everything was fine, but warned that my employer would have to increase my salary annual to meet the EU salary requirement.

Wildly confused, I took to the Googs. There, more contradictions. Some sites say the Blue Card is only a residence permit, not a work permit, while others say the opposite. Some say that it is wholly dependent on your employer, while others say you can use it to work anywhere. Some say it requires an interview, others say it’s just a quick confirmation of your details while you get your fingerprints made. At the end of my research, I was so confused by the information I found online and received in person that I nearly gave up on the whole process. The saving grace? Expat Facebook groups. I put out an all-call for others who’ve gone through the process, and asked my most important questions. I’ve gathered the answers here as a reference for others looking for clarity, and also to show that, even in real life, there’s not a set precedent—meaning that everyone’s experience is a little different.

  1. Do you need a residence permit in addition to the Blue Card?

MV: No, the Blue Card serves as both, a residence and a work permit. It is initially limited to a timeframe that is equal to the length of your contract plus three months.

GJ: The blue card is a residence and working permit at the same time. Just have special requirements because it targets a highly qualified professionals.

MR: Blue card is a residence and work permit

CN: The blue card is a residence permit too, so nothing extra required

Ok. We’re all agreed. It serves as both work and residence permit.

  1. Does your salary need to change every year to reflect the requirements in the Blue Card application? Or am I good if my salary exceeds the current requirement for 2016 and the Blue Card is granted?

MV: No. As long as you meet the requirements for the Blue Card, you are set until you need to extend it.

GJ: As far as know, your salary doesn’t have to change every year. It has to meet the requirements at the moment of applying every time. There’s no a maximum salary required to apply. Just a minimum.

MR: I’m not sure about that cos I earn much more than the minimum. But I think as long as you qualify for 2016 ~49k euro per annum, it should be fine, because they never called me in again to check my current salary

CN: I guess that as long as your salary doesn’t drop to below the minimum requirement you’re good.

Ok. We’re all agreed—contrary to what the Ausländerangelegenheiten said, you do not need your employer to sanction a yearly raise to match the EU requirement. (Darn?)

 

  1. If your job changes (promotion, for example) do you need to reapply for the Blue Card?

MV: No. I am basing my response on the fact that my husband got promoted once in the two years we’ve been here and he did not need to reapply. His work contract was re-written though, and naturally those details were provided to the Welcome Center, when we extended our stint in Germany.

GJ: The blue card is restricted to your position, employer and location for the first 2 years. If you change any of them I understand you have to apply again. After the first two years you can request an unrestricted blue card.

MR: Yes, you need to go to the office to get a change of a supplementary card (paper form), which states your job title. That’s just annoying admin work but no big deal.

CN: Promotions have no effect. It is issued for a specific period and then you either renew it or apply for permanent residence.

Eh. Kinda? Promotions should not effect your status, but if your job significantly changes or you switch employers you may run into some trouble. There may be flexibility within that—I guess it depends who is approving your request.

  1. Is it tied to your current employer?

MV: Yes. This is true until one reaches the 21 month mark i.e. You have been employed and paying into the system for 21 months. At that instance, your Blue Card can be changed to a status that allows you to work for any employer.

MR: Tied to your current job + employer -> any change has to be approved by the foreign office

CN: It’s not tied to an employer.

My Blue Card has not indication of an employer on it, so this is still hazy for me. I assume that you have to at least notify one of the government offices, but I wouldn’t 100% say it is tied or not tied to an employer.

  1. **If so, do you know if you need to get permission to switch jobs?

MV: I believe you’d need to reapply / revisit your status with the Welcome Center. Also, I think this is dependent on the kind of job you switch to in the future.

MR: Yes, I need to get permission in the first 24 months to switch jobs/employer

CN: No permission needed to change employers.

  1. Have you gone through the permanent resident process on it? (at 21 months in?) If so, was it pretty straightforward?

MV: We just had a discussion with the Welcome Center about this stage since we’ll actually be at 24 months this October! The paperwork is straightforward but my husband and I have to be proficient in German at a B1 level. If we choose not to go through the permanent residence process at this time, we can revisit at 33 months when we need to be proficient at least at an A1 level. For us, we do want to head back to the US (I know! I know!) for a bit so we’re struggling making a decision here.

GJ: I did. It’s quite straightforward. If you present the documentation they request, you shouldn’t have any problem. I did it after 33 months because I didn’t have the B1 certificate. I got the letter with an appointment to deliver my picture just a couple of days after I handed the documents out.

MR: I am applying for my permanent residency now at 21 months

CN: My partner went from blue card to permanent residence and it was really easy. I qualify too and just need to submit my docs (via email to the Welcome Center and then they’ll schedule an appointment. No stringent interview and they’ve even relaxed the German level requirement for me (and for my partner).

  1. For the appointment, is there an interview or anything you have to do? Or do you just need to submit the application in person?

MV: You do have make an appointment an appear in person with all your paperwork and fees. The interview is straightforward – they just gauge if your answers are commensurate with the work contract. They do biometrics/ fingerprinting at this time as well.

GJ: For the appointment, it is important to bring all the documents. They may ask you a couple of things if it’s not fully clear in the documentation.Nevertheless, if you have the possibility, ask your employer to support you by hiring a relocation agency. They do this kind of paperwork for a living and are the real experts. Not to mention that they are well known at the welcome center. I would recommend you to get all the documents they request and take into consideration that you need a working visa covering the time between your starting date and the date you finally get the blue card (it could be easily one month after the appointment date).

MR: There wasn’t an interview for me. It was just my application in person. The blue card is relatively new and many staff at the foreign offices are not familiar with the procedures and requirements. I called the central office in Nürnberg a few times to request for info but there is not much they could do. Hearing from people who had completed the process brought so much clarity to the murk, and showed me one crucial thing. It sounds shady, but ultimately, the staff member processing your application is the one deciding the approval of the Blue Card.

My interview (more detail on that below) was fairly straightforward. I was nervous going in, but basically all they want to do is confirm your details and enter it into the system. They’re not grilling you on your qualifications or if you are, indeed, specialized enough.

Pro Tips:

  • Show up to your appointments on time and with your documents as organized as possible. I clipped everything together in the exact order they had requested. Like in most bureaucratic offices, the staff tends to be stressed—a little effort to make their lives easier goes a long way. True story: I was misdirected to the wrong meeting room for my Blue Card appointment, and was a few minutes late. The officer I met with said that I was so late she couldn’t see me—then asked to double-check my documents so she could reschedule our appointment. When she saw how organized my paperwork was, she changed her mind and was able to quickly process me in the remaining time.
  • Just because it’s the Office of Foreign Affairs, don’t expect to be spoken to in English. It helps to review some key vocabulary related to your application, or if possible, bring a German friend. Of course ask to switch languages if you need to, but if you can muster some German to greet them or at least say “thank you”, that helps tremendously.
  • Don’t necessarily take everything the official offices say as gospel. If I had listened to the Welcome Center, I would never have proceeded with the application process, because I didn’t want to pay to have my degrees reevaluated.
  • Don’t necessarily count on your employer knowing the correct visa process. My company, though international, had no understanding of the visa processes for non-EU nationals.
  • Ask questions from those who have already gone through it. There are so many amazing references available online. My favorites are Girl Gone International (all-women expatriate group) and ToyTown Germany (great for reading posts, but I was never approved by the admin to actually ask a question).

Have you gone through the process? I’m curious to hear about your experience, and what holds true or untrue for you—let me know in the comments! If you have questions to add, let me know!

 

Where in the World is…

Nope, not Carmen San Diego. The correct answer this time is the Google Street View. The BBC’s new Geoguesser game challenges you to look at scenes from Google Maps and try to orient yourself on the map. The closer you are to the actual location pictured, the more points you get—and it’s really interesting to try to suss out all the clues from each map situation. Are there signs you can read to get a sense of language? Are the cars driving on the right- or left-hand side? Are the buildings new or old? What are the people wearing? Have a go of it here!

 

 

Oktoberfest an der Alster: Celebrating Hamburg-Style

I had really hoped to get down to Bavaria to celebrate my first Oktoberfest in Germany—but with a packed work schedule, coordinating with visiting friends, and the rest of real life, somehow time got away from me. Should I also blame in on the common conviction that Oktoberfest is held in October? Sure! Machen wir so.


The world largest folk festival, Oktoberfest, ironically only overlaps with October for one weekend, and is held annually in Munich. An interesting bit of history, per Wiki,

“The Munich Oktoberfest originally took place in the 16-day period leading up to the first Sunday in October. In 1994, this longstanding schedule was modified in response to German reunification. As such, if the first Sunday in October falls on the 1st or the 2nd, then the festival would run until October 3 (German Unity Day).”

The festival is a Bavarian tradition, but other cities in Germany will hold their own satellite versions of the event, complete with keg-tapping, raucous music, traditional outfits, INCREDIBLE food, and the requisite table dancing. So we gathered a crew and made a reservation at Hamburg’s Hofbrau an der Alster for opening day—myself, the lovely Carolina (in from Los Angeles for the weekend), my work partner, André and his wife, Marcela (who has a rockin’ Youtube channel), and of course, our official German cultural bridge, Tim. Oktoberfest isn’t complete without the outfits—traditional dirndls for the ladies, and lederhosen (leather pants) for the gents—but we added our own spin. Marcela sported “ladyhosen”, a shorter version for women; André had on a Tirolerhüte, a traditional wool or felt Alpine hat; and Carolina has the traditional Edelweiß necklace. (And at one point, both of our menfolk wore the Hofbrau decorative ribbons like Hendrix-style headbands). Once we got to the Hofbrau, we saw all kinds of variations—lederhosen with T-shirts, dirndls worn with converse sneakers—it was a riot of color, braided hair, and checkered shirts.

The one thing Tim was adamant about was making sure the guys had tall enough socks (apparently a huge faux pas to show up without them. For those of us sporting a dirndl apron, we had to do a bit of research to ensure our apron bows were tied on the correct side—right for taken, left for single, a center bow for “maids” or virgins. It is only knotted in the back if you are a widow.

The food at the Hofbrau is amazing, and so we ordered a tableful of it. Literally, to the point where we could not fit anything else on the table. The Filipino in me of course loves Schweinshaxe (grilled ham hock), which comes with a thick, crispy layer of skin over soft, seasoned meat. We also has Käsespätzle (cheese noodles), pretzels, and Weißwurst (white sausage, served with sweet mustard). The Weißwurst came in a little pot of water, and had to be peeled out of their skins before we ate…an act that got more challenging after a Maß of beer!

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Speaking of! What makes the beer at Oktoberfest special? No matter where you are, the beer served has to conform t the Reinheitsgebot, or the German Beer Purity Law. According to the 1516 Bavarian law, the only ingredients that could be used in the production of beer were water, barley and hops. There are only six breweries that can produce Oktoberfest Beer—even the beer we drank at the Hofbrau in Hamburg came from one of them. Beer is served by the liter in large glass mugs called Maß, which are solid enough to withstand hearty cheersing and, when full, will easily make your arm tired as you chug. (So drink faster?) I loved watching the waitresses, who looked diminutive in their pretty dirndls, beast 8-10 Maße from the bar to their waiting tables.

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It also wouldn’t be Oktoberfest without music and dancing. Our festival had a little traveling band that went from room to room, playing music. In the main area was a stage with a bigger band—they started with traditional music, but then started to integrate some Bavarian-styled pop covers as the night went on. After the first liter of beer, everyone was on board with jumping up on the benches—singing across the hall and laughing like crazy.

So it wasn’t Bavarian Oktoberfest, but it was definitely German—loud, drunken, and a Maß-load of fun.

Reading Reco: All the Light We Cannot See

When Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See was released in 2014, I remember doing a quick Goodreads search to see the reviews. Everyone loved it, they said, but the ending was a let-down. I placed it on my “to-read” list with no particular priority, and figured I’d get to it when I got to it. Last week, I finally got to it, and I couldn’t put it down.

Books have a special resonance depending on when you read them, and I don’t doubt that living in Germany and reading this book added to my experience of it. Set alternately in France (Paris and Saint-Malo) and Germany during the Second World War, it tells parallel stories of teenagers Marie-Laure and Werner. Marie-Laure is a blind girl living with her father when they are forced to flee Paris during the occupation. She is unknowingly given something to protect for the duration of the occupation—and the tensions and suspense of her storyline are made more tangible and terrifying by the knowledge that whatever is happening around her, she cannot see. Her narrative arc was fascinating and chilling, made more so by the author’s deft devices—he writes her so that she was born with sight, but later lost it, and is just learning how to be blind when they flee their city. You sense her defenseless and confusion as she is forced to navigate not just the new waters of her blindness, but of an entire world that no longer makes sense.

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Werner’s story is also nuanced; while the portrait it paints is not a sympathetic one of a young Nazi, it is an empathetic one. Werner’s story begins as an orphan in a poverty-stricken town—as a ward of the state, he will be forced to work in the coal mines starting at age 15, where like his father and thousands of other men in his town, he will likely die an early death. But Werner has an incredible gift for science and engineering. When he repairs the radio of a Nazi commanding officer, he is given the chance to leave the coal-mines and attend a prestigious school— a choice that, as you read it, seems as obvious to the reader as it does to Werner. And so begins Werner’s career as a budding Nazi engineer. As he progresses through his schooling and training, the reader watches him vacillate between initial acceptance of the status quo (it was, after all, the thing that rescued him), to the more complicated moral dilemma—what should I do when something everyone else says is right is something I know in my heart to be wrong?

Werner and Marie-Laure’s stories eventually intersect, and Werner is given a chance to do the right thing. This plot point, for me, is what makes such an interesting parallel to the status of modern-day Germany as a country: can actions of evil be redeemed or atoned for by actions of goodness? Or is the black mark one that will never be absolved?

[To further complicate the question—I always find it interesting that some Americans refuse to go to Germany because of it’s Nazi past, and yet America has equally heavy strikes in our racial past that are somehow redressed because “slavery/racism is over.” (And slavery, though a huge strike, doesn’t even begin to wholly encompass America’s complicated relationship with “otherness”). A German woman I met once posed the question, “How are we held responsible for 12 years while others exonerate themselves for centuries of abuse?” The issue is loaded, complex, and above all, thought-provoking—a description that fits the story as well.]

Like other readers, I’ll note that the novel’s finish is a bit of a let-down. It reminded me of a wave pulling back out to sea—the heft and grandeur of it has already crashed, and the ending lingers on the beach a little longer than it should. But focus on the rest of the story—the questions it asks and the beautiful lines (some chapters could certainly be standalone stories), and you’ll find yourself willing to forgive the end on behalf of the means.