Easter Sky — Venice, Italy
Prompt via The Daily Post
Easter Sky — Venice, Italy
Easter Sky — Venice, Italy
Prompt via The Daily Post
My favorite thing to do when visiting an old city is to see how much of its architectural history is still intact. To wander through these old section of town is not unlike watching a 90-year old grandma busting a surprising move on the dance floor—they have surprising charm, elegance, and even a hipness to them despite the age. So you know I love this interactive feature from the Hamburger Abendblatt (and subsequent opportunity for punning).
What surprised me most about the Hamburger Abendblatt’s interactive feature, however, is not how different Hamburg is today from the Hamburg of 100+ years ago, but how similar it is. Through two World Wars and a lot of growth, you can still see those old bones all throughout the city. And yeah, they still can show the young’uns something.
Last Saturday marked the start of my second year in Germany. Which seems insane. It feels like I just landed from California (oh wait, because I did…). But in seriousness, I learned a lot in the past year—about myself, about my new country, about people. In truth, I think a lot of things I knew already. I’ve been lucky to have traveled a lot, lived abroad, and worked cross-culturally before. But I like that my lifestyle now serves as a constant reminder of these lessons. Here are some of the ones that resonate most with me:
The constant struggle of being understood reminds me all the time to be more patient with others—whether they are struggling with language issues or struggling with simply finding words to express themselves. This goes for being culturally different too. My team at work is made up of myself, Germans, Brazilians, an Iranian, and the occasional South African freelancer. That means that on any given day, we’re working across an average of three cultures. It’s taught me to be aware of our differences, as much as we celebrate our similarities. Things that I might find offensive might be completely regular to someone else. When I get confused or frustrated, I try to always have my first reaction be to question, “Ok, is this a cultural thing?” and then go from there. (And truthfully, while sometimes it is, other times the person is just being a jerk)
Giving up so much of my stuff when I moved reminded me that you can live with less—and that I’m completely okay with having fewer things and more stories. I spent a lot of money on travel within the last year, but I’d much rather have the experiences versus a big television or fancier bike. Moving here was expensive, and if the choice is between buying something I don’t really need or having a nice night out with friends, I’d rather use the money towards doing something instead of having something.
Speaking of traveling all the time…here in Germany, I have 30 days of vacation. And while it may amuse some of my friends here that I’ve learned lessons about working less (considering the crazy hours I do work), living in such a society has convinced me how imperative some sort of work-life balance is. This is honestly my biggest hesitation when it comes to moving back to the States—the feeling that work is always there. To some extent, it is here too (especially for me lately), but I also know that when I go on vacation, I’m untouchable. And for the most part, work respects that.
*and I’m writing this at 10 pm from the office, so this is definitely something I will continually remind myself.
My mom often tells me that I “burn the candle at both ends”—always taking on a full plate. But without the safety net of close family and friends, you wind up looking out for yourself a lot. That means knowing your limits, and when it’s necessary to push them. Here, I’m responsible for making myself uncomfortable and trying new things—but I’m also responsible for knowing when to take a night in and spoil myself.
Whenever you move somewhere new, you have to force yourself to be social, because otherwise, you’ll be a hermit. I’ve been really lucky to have found a crew of wonderful friends since I’ve moved here. A mix of German natives and expats, they both remind me what’s good about living here, and give me someone to vent to when I need to complain something Typisch Deutsch.
This comes directly from the Germans, and it’s one lesson I’ve really relished learning. Americans always complain about Germans being rude, but what they are is direct. They say what they mean and they do so unapologetically. I love this culture of real talk—it’s a great tactic for professional as well as personal life. I’ve also been forced to learn how to articulate my own feelings more regularly. It’s not enough to not like something or to be upset: Germans want you to be able to analyze why you feel a certain way and why you think that is. It’s been kind of fascinating to be so in touch with myself versus the self-shrug we typically do in the States.
Stumble through your bad German. Ask silly questions. Push the red button. Wait. Try. See what happens. Squawk in surprise. Be embarrassingly American. Stick out like a sore thumb. Have fun. I’ve felt utterly ridiculous at least 3 times a day since I got here, and while some nights I am so frustrated I want to break something, overall it’s refreshing to laugh at yourself so often. I know that I’m trying. And it’s so rewarding when I finally do find success—whether it’s being able to ask the butcher for the right cut of meat, cracking a joke in German that makes my boyfriend’s best friend laugh, or giving a tourist directions.
After a year, I’m starting to feel things clicking. I’m starting to feel like I belong.
“Corn on the cob.”
“You know what I can’t find here? Pumpkin!”
“You looking for pumpkin? I got. You want?”
So went a recent conversation with my Ami* amie, Britt. Sharing a post-inauguration drink to drown our sorrows, we were resigned to staying in Germany, but bemoaning four years without our American food favorites. (And yes, this is definitely a First World Problem. Namely, a First-World Expat Problem.)
Sure, American food isn’t impossible to get. Certain specialty food stores have an American aisle, where bright boxes of Safeway familiars crowd together. And Amazon recently launched an online version (although a box of Twinkies was retailing for 11EUR, so perhaps it’s not the most cost effective). If one of us is going home for a visit, we collect the grocery lists of the other. Over-the-counter medicines, Trader Joe’s favorites, Target snackbags. Cajun seasoning and jars of peanut butter.
But the best is when friends come visiting from the States, bringing with them a taste of home that is as literal as it is figurative. It feels like Christmas to see the suitcases unzip and spew forth such delightful contraband as corn tortillas, bags of black beans, name-brand Sriracha, Louisiana hot sauce, boxes of ramen, gallons of Soy Sauce, my favorite Detox Tea. And the ever elusive cans of pumpkin puree, perfect for making pumpkin pie desserts.
Of course, there is an upside to foregoing our processed American food. It’s challenged me to do a lot of made-from-scratch cooking that I never would have bothered with otherwise. For my farewell Obama dinner, I made enchiladas. I could find basically everything I needed…except for enchilada sauce. So for the first time, I made my own (note that the recipe calls for Chili Powder, which is way easier to get in the States). And I’ll tell you what—I am NEVER going back to the can again. I make my own soup stock now too, like a regular Hausfrau.
And the local favorites are nothing to scoff at. German bread is way, way better than anything you can buy in the U.S. The meat and vegetables you buy at the market (even the chains) are typically all locally-sourced and seasonal—which leads to incredible taste. The cheese selection will blow your mind, and the dazzling array of quality two-buck chuck will have your winerack stocked for less than 20 euros.
But sometimes you’re hungry for more than just food. Sometimes you want a little of that Americana nostalgia that only a bag of baked-but-not-fried Goldfish crackers can provide.
Just be sure to ration them util your next visit(or) is planned.
*Ami is a German slang shorthand for American
Apple Picking — Altes Land, Hamburg
Prompt via The Daily Post
One of the delights of learning new languages is playing with the new words in the patterns of the languages you already know. In English, you can say, big to mean “cool”, “heavy”, “brilliant”. Germans will use their equivalent, groß, the same way. Do Spanish speakers? If they didn’t, they might now.
Over seven days in Tenerife, whenever we got a plate of delicious food or a glass of incredible wine, or turned a corner to see an amazing view, I’d hear Tim give a low whistle and say (to the baffled amusement of the Canarians), “Grande”. And Tenerife, the largest of the seven Spanish Canary Islands, deserves the word. Hovering off the coast of norther Africa, Tenerife is famous for its volcano, Mount Teide, the largest peak in Spain at 3,718-metres (12,198 ft); its stunning landscapes; and (most importantly for those visiting from northern Europe), its year-long sunshine and high temperatures.
We went all over but didn’t really do anything besides eat, drink, lay in the sun, and drive.
Long, winding drives through crazy landscapes both lush and alien. The road to Masca, which ribbons through the islands northwestern corner with hair-pin turns and cacti at every corner.
Through Anaga National Park, which occupies most of the northeastern corner and is luscious and green with Canarian pines.
We ended up at pristine beaches, thick with chunky sand and hunks of holey rock plunging out of the blue waves. I searched for sea glass in the crumbles of volcanic sand. We stacked colorful lava rocks in approximations of snowmen figures.
We passed through towns where the houses were built on each other into the mountains, balanced together like stacks of blocks. Little squares were still decorated for Christmas, and fat Santas rappelled down bright walls or dropped from wrought iron gates.
We ate tapas and paella, drank carafes of delicious cool red wine and tall cups of rum and pineapple juice—a lime bobbing at the lip of the glass. We bought avocadoes by the pound and ate a heaping bowl of guacamole every day. Our table was filled with vivid food—rosy slivers of Serrano ham, rough hunks of salami, moon-yellow slices of Emmentaler, pauncy green olives bloated with brine, persimmons and mandarins like little balls of fire. We bought spicy red Canarian mojo and topped everything with it—eggs, toast, avocadoes, potatoes—until the squat little jar was scraped clean.
We spoke Spanish, English, and German. Sprawled under the strong equatorial sun we talked about everything under the sun—about the ethics of keeping orcas at sea parks, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the differences between comets and meteors, the types of volcanoes, if it’s possible to grow a banana tree in a non-tropical climate (also known as our kitchen).
One night in the middle of our trip, we drove up to the slopes of Mount Teide to watch the sunset and the stars come out. We wandered around the edges of the volcano, a landscape full of rocks and cacti and wild openness. As the sun sank, we climbed up a burgundy finger of scoriaceous rock, it’s porous surface making it look more like coral than stone. The stars slowly began to appear—and there is no way to write about them without using every tired cliché in the book. It was incredible. A sky so dark and clear that, directly above us, we could see the faint flickers of the Orion Nebula.
And there’s no other word for that, I think, than grande.
Americans know better than to wish each other a Merry Christmas. Issue it with the best of intentions, and you’re likely to receive a lecture on political correctness. Holiday decorations have to be kept to generic winter themes, and even the traditional red, green, and white is often tweaked for inclusivity. Not everyone celebrates Christmas. Which is true, in America. But in Germany? Ah, homogeny.
I walked into my office in the first week of December to find not only a Christmas tree bedecked in the agency colors, but an Adventskranz, or wreath, in place of our weekly flowers and an interactive Adventskalendar, which raffled off prizes during every weekday in Advent. Advent wreaths are all over the city of Hamburg, in front of banks, city buildings, schools, and shops alike. It startled me a little to see such a flagrant show of celebration: the last time I saw an Advent wreath in public was when I was in Catholic school.
Christianity is the most popular religion in Germany, with about 67% identifying either as Roman Catholic or Protestant, so the prevalence of Advent memorabilia makes perfect sense. But on the whole, I’ve found Germany to be not as “in your face” about their religious habits (or, conversely, lack thereof) as other countries. For sure, not every German celebrates Christmas in the traditional sense, with church services and the religious hoopla—which is, of course, the reason for the season. Many of my German friends are not religious, but appreciate Christmas on a nostalgic or aesthetic level. In other words, it’s possible for the season to hold the reason at a pretty fair distance.
As someone who celebrates Christmas (or at least, doesn’t not celebrate Christmas), it’s hard for me to tell if this one-dimensional winter holidaymaking actually makes others feel excluded or is some form of incorrectness, the way we are so conditioned to believe in the States. Those who want to celebrate differently are, as far as I can see, welcomed to do so—there have been a few Menorahs around town as well. I really like that it’s possible to decorate or celebrate how you feel fit without feeling like anyone is pushing the “prepare for the birth of Jesus” narrative at you, or feeling that Christmas is a war that needs to be “won” or “lost”.
Rather, I think here, the society is better at understanding that sometimes, a beautifully decorated candle wreath in December is simply something that reminds you to reflect on the passing of the year. Or just makes your dining room look good.
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.
“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.
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.
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.