Deutschland Diaries volume 3: Bayern

July 2007

OK, so: though Bayern (Bavaria) is part of Germany, Bavarians are, first and foremost, Bavarians. In this way, and with its strong regional accent, the German state of Bayern is much like the American state/”republic” of Texas, only with really cute painted buildings, smaller belt buckles, and the Alps. Also no tornadoes.

What have I noticed in Bayern, you ask? Well:

Fashion

  • Mohawks, mohawks, everywhere. I’ve seen at least a half dozen of these, on individuals from age 10 to 30. Those west of the Atlantic, consider yourselves warned. (2018 note: I warned you, didn’t I? Fortunately this trend was short-lived.)
  • The random bright red streaks in the hair of otherwise conservative-looking women are stylish, not accidental. The even brighter red streaks adorning the hair of punks and/or goths are also, for some reason, deliberate.
  • The prevailing style is… well… a bored Punky Brewster crossed with Tim Burton. For women, anyway. Men manifest individuality through mullet-meets-mohawk hairstyles with bright yellow or red streaks, or through socks with sandals, or all of the above.

Nature

  • There is a miraculous tree whose leaves glitter and shimmer when the wind blows. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see several of these from your window. (2018 update: I finally found out, in 2016, that these trees are called quaking aspen trees, and Colorado has them.)
  • Johannisbeeren are nearly incandescent and entirely delicious.
  • The weather changes every couple of hours—while most of today was hot and sunny, at 4:00 a massive storm blew horizontal rain past my window for an hour. Now at 7:00 it’s sunny again. This makes for a lot of rainbows, so is overall a plus. (As of July 4, I’d seen seven, including two on July 4 itself.)

Die Leute

  • Men in Germany don’t walk. Their ambulatory method is a wholly nonchalant saunter/stroll, jacket slung perfectly over one shoulder.
  • German people don’t understand peanut butter. I knew this in theory, but the reality is sobering. Please to send peanut butter M&Ms. (On the other hand, Germans are really good with hazelnuts, which mostly compensates for their peanut butter deficiencies.)
  • No matter where you are, you’re downwind of someone smoking.
  • Although exactly two people in the entire country have your contact information, the mobile phone that starts ringing noisily during a movie may be yours.

Daily Life

  • The key really will open the door. No, really! Once you get the technique right, this will no longer take ten minutes.
  • City centers are generally adorable, though inconveniently paved (note to self: cobblestones are more charming in theory than in practice).
  • Train stations have up- and down-stairs conveyor belts. As in, you put your luggage on the belt, either at the top or the bottom, and the belt magically knows which way you want your suitcases to go, thus preventing the possible hernia that could result from carrying your myriad and very heavy possessions up or down the stairs.
  • The chocolate here is so good that even I, who will NEVER know how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, can allow it to melt in my mouth.

And now, favorite moments:

  • The first time I carried out a five-minute conversation completely in German (June 13)
  • When I went to the electronics store and managed to successfully describe, locate, and purchase an outlet adapter with a voltage converter entirely auf Deutsch (July 3)

Deutschland Diaries volume 2: Pop Quiz

June 2007

Pop quiz: What do you do if you lock yourself out of your room in southern Germany, where you arrived nine days ago, and:

  • You’re pretty highly strung even in ideal situations
  • All the instructions for what to do in this situation are in German
  • You don’t SPEAK German yet
  • It’s 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon
  • The Hausmeister is in the mountains and won’t be back until 8:00 PM at the earliest
  • Your total food intake for the day has been one piece of bread and half an apple
  • You forgot to take your allergy pills and your allergies are unbelievably bad in Germany
  • You haven’t been sleeping well because you’re in a new environment (so, like, you’re COMPLETELY exhausted and for the past three hours all you’ve wanted to do in the word is go home, eat, take your allergy pills, and sleep for a long time)
  • You know three people in the entire city
  • The numbers in your phone for these people are incorrect
  • You’re also locked out of the room that has the phone book
  • You try to call the Hausmeister and instead a woman answers the phone and because of your limited German and her limited English it takes you nearly five minutes to discover that she is, in fact, NOT the Hausmeister, which means you’ve written the number down wrong
  • When this frustrating call ends, you find that you’re down to almost zero on your phone card
  • A mentally unbalanced man approaches you in the park when you’re CLEARLY in no shape to talk to anyone and then yells at you because you neither speak German nor have a cigarette lighter
  • You’re wearing very cute but very painful and impractical shoes with two-inch heels
  • The pavement consists of four-inch square stones with big gaps between each stone (see item re: impractical shoes with heels)
  • You finally manage to get in touch with a friend, who tells you that you can come to his house
  • You find his apartment building on a map, and it should take you less than 10 minutes to get there, but because the map bears absolutely no relation to the streets it’s supposed to represent you walk for 45 minutes before you find it (this is quite unpleasant; see again item re: impractical shoes with heels)
  • Once you find his apartment building, you pull on the door handle but the door doesn’t open, leaving you standing in front of the entry in total despair for about three minutes before it occurs to you that you could try PUSHING the door (whereupon it opens)
  • When you get to your friend’s apartment, your friend’s staggeringly unhelpful visiting friend smugly informs you that no landlord in Germany will open a tenant’s door (whereupon you lose it for a second and say to him “You can be quiet anytime now” and your friend says “That wasn’t very polite”)
  • When your friend calls the Hausmeister (because you miraculously remember the number, having seen it in the elevator exactly once [but not even knowing that was the Hausmeister’s number]), you find out that you’re not technically supposed to live in your room because you haven’t signed any kind of lease and you’re not a student, so the Hausmeister is suspicious and may not let you in (he asks if you have your passport, and you reply “Yes—IN MY ROOM”)

Answer:

You cry. A lot. Then you cry some more. Then you sit on a park bench and stare dully at the grass until aforementioned Mentally Unbalanced Smoking Man Incident. Then you wonder why the he[ck] you can’t handle trivial problems like this and you feel guilty and you cry some more. Then you stop by McDonald’s (which is normally against your principles, but this institution’s two undeniable advantages are that a) it’s actually OPEN and b) it has public restrooms), and then you eat your ice cream outside on a bench, too exhausted to cry.

But then, you finally arrive at the apartment of the Eighth Wonder of the World (your friend UI), who calls the Hausmeister for you, takes you home, and talks the Hausmeister into opening your door (at first the Hausmeister is still suspicious, despite seeing your messy, tear-stained, utterly wretched condition, but he eventually relents and then seems to feel bad for being initially crusty). The Hausmeister opens your door and then makes a copy of your passport. At 9:30 PM, 7.5 hours after the ordeal began, you finally go to your room, manage somehow to change into your pajamas, and then collapse, grateful that at least, for the first time in several days, it didn’t rain.

Deutschland Diaries volume 1: Am Anfang

In 2007 I lived in Augsburg, Germany for three months. At the time I had a Windows Live Space (remember those? No? Oh well), and I posted some of my thoughts on it. Windows Live Spaces no longer exist, so I thought all my hard work was gone forever—but then I discovered that Past Me had actually planned well for once, and had sent these thoughts as an e-mail to some friends. Good job, Past Me!

Fast forward 11 years: I just returned from an amazing two weeks in Germany and the Czech Republic that helped reset my internal equilibrium (I’m feeling so much better). I have some preliminary sketches about that trip, but while I work on them I thought I’d share some of my thoughts from 2007. Enjoy…


June 2007

So, I’ve been in Deutschland for four days now, and I love it. OF COURSE. But also of course, there are adjustments. In English I can say exactly what I want to and can even sometimes appear semi-educated; here my speech is slow, grammatically dubious, heavily accented, and generally tortured. ’Tis humbling.

A few other observations:

  • Just because you can find your way there, that doesn’t mean you can find your way back.
  • Under no circumstances should you ever challenge a kamikaze bicyclist. Under no circumstances should you try to dodge one, either, because regardless of which way you frantically dart, the bicyclist will swerve in that same direction, leaving you in the path of a bicycle and rider who is now even closer than before. Just close your eyes and stand perfectly still, like when you’re avoiding a tyrannosaurus rex.
  • Tram doors do not open automatically. Unless you push the button to open the door, the tram will leave the platform while you stare through the windows at the passengers who are staring back at you, wondering why this idiot doesn’t just push the button, already.
  • The landlord is not completely naked. She is wearing swimsuit bottoms, albeit very small ones. Sometimes, in the late afternoon, she also wears a shirt.
  • Although to your American English-speaking eyes and ears these street names are functionally identical, you will not find your lodgings on Großburgerstraße if you live on Gabelsburgerstraße.
  • Brussels is not the only European city with iconic decorative fauna. Wolfenbuttel also proudly features a large yellow bell-wearing cow.
  • Yes, that person really did say “ausflippen”.
  • You must bag your groceries yourself, in bags that you either furnish or purchase yourself, and asfastasyoupossiblycan. German cashiers are incredibly dexterous and want you to go away. If you wait for the cashier to bag your groceries, as they do in that dumb entitled place you came from, your food and newly purchased bags will pile up untidily at the end of the conveyor belt while the cashier and other customers give you the Stare of Dumbfounded WTF.
  • Germans do not jaywalk. Your cavalier street-crossing will engender startled and/or disapproving expressions from nearby genteel persons and counter-culture renegade anarchist teenagers alike, all of whom patiently wait for the light to change at an intersection with no cars in sight.
  • It is possible to smoke a cigarette while riding a bicycle.
  • Though German has an (admittedly improvised) phrase for “escape pod from the mother ship”(I needed a way to describe Smart Cars), it has no word for “jailbait.”

Admiring Wil Wheaton

I’m grateful to Wil Wheaton for his efforts to de-stigmatize what for many is reality, and to my friend MW for sharing her own experience last week (she is my spirit animal).

My life is objectively good. I live in an adorable apartment with a ton of natural light in a fantastic city with endless arts and intellectual options. I have a job I enjoy and that pays well, so I’m financially secure. I sing with a truly exceptional group of people every week—a choir that continues to be the highlight of my life. I have friends, and my family, though they’re all far away, loves me.

And yet.

I just spent half an hour rocking back and forth on my couch, wracked with sobs. The culprit? The sandwich shop I was in started playing Smashing Pumpkins and the people in front of me took a long time with a complicated order. This should not be a big deal—but it was just too much for me today. One minute I’m standing at the counter picking up my sandwich and trying to ignore Billy Corgan’s infernal nasal whine, and then suddenly tears are running down my face as I stumble the half-block home, and then I’m choking on roast beef and sourdough because it’s hard to eat and cry at the same time.

These days, I usually catch these episodes before they hit this point. I’ve gotten so much better in the past decade. Medication and therapy and cognitive behavioral skills have led to a vastly improved quality of life over that of the young woman who once didn’t sleep for eight weeks because someone didn’t love her back, and who spent years convinced she had no skills or talents so the thought of always having to earn a living was terrifying. Or the teenager who was an active cutter through high school and college, and didn’t realize the scars would always remain visible. (Fortunately most people don’t ask—though a bishop did once tell me I should wear longer sleeves if I wanted to attract a partner.)

But the episodes, they still happen. I wish that, like Wil Wheaton, I could say I’m not ashamed. But I can’t. I hate that I don’t have the emotional capacity that I want to have. I hate that I’m a grown woman who has meltdowns in public places, like Disney World AND Winchester Cathedral AND a Seattle street corner AND my local sandwich shop. I hate that I sometimes can’t do the things I want to do because I know what will happen if I push myself to do things that other people seem to handle easily.

Again, though, it’s so much better than before. The episodes are less frequent, less intense, and less long-lasting. I know how to handle it. I’ll be better after a couple of days of British period dramas, chocolate, and quiet; if I hadn’t created this post, nobody except the strangers I passed on the street earlier would have even known anything about this particular episode.

But I guess that’s the thing, isn’t it? Depression is such a shameful thing to have; I’d much rather hide away and work through it myself than “go public” in this way; I feel that I’m fishing for external validation. Which is why Wil Wheaton’s blog is so meaningful to me and to others who deal with this illness. Maybe someday I’ll find this mental miswiring less embarrassing, and I’ll be able to just say, “Hey, friends, I need help” without having to spend an hour working up the nerve first.

Until then, you guys, just know that this is what depression looks like from the inside. Some days are good, and some days are just rough. All the love to my friends who similarly struggle—maybe someday we’ll be able to talk about it more openly.

Literature

A puzzle that shows famous writers including Geoffrey Chaucer, Pearl S. Buck, and Margaret Atwood.

At work, we do a lot of jigsaw puzzles. Like, a LOT of them. One that I brought in (pictured at left) featured some of the world’s best writers, and included indications if the writer had won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a Nobel Prize in literature, or both. Doing the puzzle made me think about reading award-winning literature. When I discovered that the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction was awarded in 1918, I decided to read all of the fiction Pulitzer Prize winners—in a completely non-systematic way, because even I’m not ridiculously rigid all the time.

It’s been really interesting. People as a whole don’t change much, though fortunately racism isn’t as blatant as it was in, say, 1942 (Ellen Glasgow’s In This Our Life was the winner that year). A lot of these books are harrowing at times, and I’m still processing The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I finished last night. That book required some extra suspension of disbelief so it wasn’t as effective as it could have been.

To alleviate the occasional harrowedness, I’ve started watching the new Queer Eye. The few episodes I’ve seen of the old show were always fun. The Netflix reboot, however, is giving me big ol’ gut punches every episode. The Fab 5 aren’t just making over a few frumpy dudes to help them get chicks—they’re focused on helping their charges find and become comfortable with vulnerability; the makeover recipients, however reluctantly, face the way(s) in which they’re hindering their own progress. Each episode has at least one tear-jerker moment, and the third one, in which Karamo (who is black in addition to being gay) has a frank conversation with a white ex-Marine cop from Georgia, and Cory (the aforementioned white ex-Marine cop from Georgia) shows his mother the quilt that the Fab 5 has made out of his late father’s shirts? Actual crying, y’all. In the words of the 2007 McDonald’s ad campaign, I’m lovin’ it.

All this reading of Great Literature and watching of surprisingly poignant (can’t believe I just used that word; I normally hate it) and even inspiring television, plus a couple of other things, has got me thinking. What would a Fab 5 team have to say about my life and how it’s arranged? And what can I do about that?

Facebook Substitute

So for the third (possibly fourth?) time, I’m off Facebook for Lent. Which means that when something interesting happens, I don’t automatically have an easy way to share it. That can be hard; as much as I feel overwhelmed by self-disgust after I’ve spent an hour mindlessly scrolling through other people’s posts (or worse, reading linked articles and the comments on those articles), I do enjoy sharing pockets of absurdity or delight. Writing a post here is harder; it has to have a title, for pity’s sake, which somehow makes it much more difficult, and, like, formal, or something.

(Re: Lent: I’m not religious these days, but I do still sing in a church [which, yes, is still the highlight of my life], and Lent is a great excuse to get rid of some of the yuck in my life. Hence the Facebook abstention.)

The interesting things that happened today:

I discovered that, should anyone ever need one, it is possible to find, on the internet, a .gif of a yam spinning in a washing machine.

(Okayfine maybe it’s a soup pot. But it could be a washing machine.)

I also discovered that singing Anton Bruckner’s “Christus Factus Est” can cure—well—just about anything. (It’s been a rough couple of weeks, despite having a super awesome birthday on Sunday; we worked on this piece in choir tonight and dear God it just slays me. I could listen to—or sing—the “quod est super” phrase that the sopranos sing from measures 46–50 [2:40–2:54 in this recording] for the rest of my days.)

I also discovered—or, rather, was reminded, rather brutally—that staying up until 2:00 AM reading a book, no matter how interesting this book, is a VERY BAD IDEA if one has to work the next day, and an EVEN WORSE IDEA if one has to work + go to rehearsal, and a SUPERLATIVELY BAD IDEA if one is already running a significant sleep deficit because of a rough couple of weeks and then has to work + go to rehearsal. I finally got dressed at 5:15 PM, because I didn’t want to wear pajamas in Copley Square.

But again, the Bruckner fixed all that, and now I’m enjoying some hot chocolate and waiting for the next bomb cyclone to start. Tomorrow should be interesting, and I intend to watch it from the comfort of my home.

Admitting defeat

So I didn’t post Wednesday… or Thursday… or Friday… or yesterday.

The truth is that—well—the past while has been really tough. I’m trying to work through some things that I don’t know how to handle, and coming up with things to write every day, and trying to make at least some posts cheerful when most of my outlook is just pretty dark (remember when I used to be funny sometimes?), and knowing that what I’ve been able to force out isn’t even very good is proving to be too much.

More truth is that I’m not sure how much longer this is going to last. All of last week through earlier today, everything… just… hurt. I wrote about my emotional state last Sunday, and I felt tense and stressed and short-tempered all week, externally OK (sort of) but easily provoked to internal rage and tears. Yesterday I spent the entire day (minus a four-mile run) at home with no obligations, relaxing as best I could, and in the evening I still ended up sobbing uncontrollably into the lap of a dear friend I’d somehow managed to call even though all I wanted to do was curl into a tight, tight ball on my couch and shake.

I’ve felt this way off and on for months, and the election has made everything much, much worse. It feels silly and juvenile to blame politics and the news—really, what material effect are these things having on my day-to-day life?—but this administration has upset me more than I thought politics ever could. I can’t even see or hear p45, Paul Ryan, Kellyanne Conway, or Jason Chaffetz without literally wanting to scream. I cannot understand, I just cannot, how anyone can be OK with the policies, the ideas, the lies. That the world can be a terrible place I knew in theory; that the world can be a terrible place here and today and that these people are getting away with it is new and devastating.*

It might be different if I felt that I could do anything, but I find the whole situation upsetting to the point of incapacitating (see next-to-last paragraph)—which means I can’t even stomach tiny efforts like making calls. I donate $10 a month to 20 different organizations (including the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and NPR), but that feels like so pitifully little. What can I tell my nephews about what I did to fight for good in this wholly repugnant situation? “Well, I was too much of a fragile snowflake to do anything except curl up and melt” is not something I look forward to having to admit. Some people are able to ignore current politics; for me, that feels as reckless and irresponsible as the current inhabitants of the White House.

There are other stressors, too, of course; most are minor and first-world. I have a new boss starting tomorrow, and after a terrible situation with a co-worker a few months ago I’m irrationally afraid we’ll end up hating each other. It’s “crunch time” for a major project. I need to do my taxes and review my 401(k) even though anything involving finances makes me feel incompetent and shamefully ignorant (“you mean you STILL haven’t educated yourself about investing?!”). I need to get my hair cut and that means finding a new stylist (a total crap shoot) and I always feel cheap and un-stylish and inferior and ugly when I walk into a salon and I don’t know what can even be done with fine, thin hair like mine and I’m afraid I’ll get ripped off. These are all things that I can breathe, make plans, and handle when I’m not already stressed to distraction; right now, they feel monumental.

Which brings me back to the blog. I’ve had three goals with Lent: re-start a fitness program that did me a ton of good last year, stay off Facebook, and write every day. I really want to do them all. In a perfect world, I could. In this world, I can’t.

So perhaps the posts will come every few days, or once a week—or not at all. Hopefully at least sometimes. I guess we’ll see.


*Again, if you even THINK of comparing this to the way you or anyone else felt under Obama, I will delete your comment so fucking fast it will set your computer on fire. Which is good, because you are too stupid to be using one anyway.

(I told you the rage was there, just under the surface.)

Also, if you’re too righteous to know that using bad language doesn’t make someone a bad person, and that some situations call for profanity, you need to take your sanctimony elsewhere.

Wintertiiiiiime… and the livin’ is lazy

Big snowstorm today (which then became a wintry mix storm, then a rainstorm), so the office was closed. I had an entire day off in which I could have done multiple exercise videos; learned some more Bach; practiced singing; composed a long, thoughtful post; written in my journal; read extensively; gotten some work done; started my taxes…

I’ll let you guess exactly how many of those things I did.

Aaaand: In case you’re feeling as unmotivated as I was today, here’s something to spend lots of fun time on:

Scene-by-scene synopses of all 10 episodes of The Crown by the inimitable ladies of Go Fug Yourself

I DID NOT binge-read this today instead of doing Constructive Things. No, I did not. Why do you ask?