[I composed this piece in August 2015, almost two years after having moved to Germany, a month after having finished my Master’s degree at the University of Bonn, and just days before moving back to my native United States. Once back stateside, I knew that when sharing the last few years of my life abroad with friends, family, and strangers, I would be confronted time and again with that inevitable question that is so easy to ask, yet so impossible to answer: How was it? This essay represents an attempt to formulate an answer to this question—an answer that was also inflected by my growing uncertainty about whether, in crossing the Atlantic, I would really be returning home.]
I moved to Germany in September 2013 to continue my graduate studies, having fortuitously stumbled upon the website of the world’s only Department of Anthropology of the Americas while brainstorming proposals for a scholarship application. The Master’s program was such a perfect match for my interests that I could only smile in response to each of the many incredulous looks I received from both Germans and non-Germans during my stay when they heard that I had moved across the Atlantic to Europe specifically to study Latin America.
Yet despite feeling quickly at home in my department’s academic setting, it was impossible to forget that I was not in Virginia anymore. In taking the leap to move to a different country, completing even the most minor, mundane chores felt like a genuine accomplishment simply because everything was so foreign. Even though I had previously spent time overseas and had thus already experienced the difficulties of adjusting to another country and culture, my new life in Germany presented me with a whole new set of challenges to overcome—and new triumphs to relish—as I settled in. I had to learn to sort the trash into four separate waste and recycling bins and how to retrieve the Pfand deposit that had mysteriously appeared on my supermarket receipts for bottles and cans. For the first time, I used a kitchen scale, the metric system, and a cake pan to bake what turned out to be a pretty damn good pumpkin pie. Eventually, I was able to navigate to and from the gym without having to ask for directions, and my familiar ringtone was unusually pleasant music to my ears when I received the first text message on my new cell phone number. Particularly rewarding was the sensation of sitting in my first German university lecture and realizing that I understood all of it, even the unfamiliar drama unfolding in the buzz of gossiping students around me.
At the same time, many of the tasks required when relocating overseas—packing, applying for a visa, finding housing, unpacking, furnishing a new home, negotiating health insurance, and figuring out how to pay for all of this and more while waiting for a new bank account to open— are stressful even when moving at home. Translating these tasks into German made me realize how much knowledge of my own country’s system I had absorbed over the years just by living there, made me see how convenient it is to rely on experienced family members and friends who are able to provide advice. Mistakes and stressful events are an inevitable part of the settling down process, no matter where the settling down occurs.
Some mishaps, such as taking the wrong bus or getting off at the wrong tram stop, could easily have happened to me in a strange city in the United States. Yet others only accentuated the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, like when on one Sunday morning I went to restock my refrigerator and found myself standing in front of a darkened grocery store. Even my taste buds were surprised at times; once, I reached into my friend’s bag of popcorn in the cinema only to realize that the kernels were coated in sugar, not salt. In class, of course, mistakes were inevitable. I spent the first twenty pages of an essay about architecture in ancient Honduras discussing banks (Banken) instead of benches (Bänke). Sometimes I inadvertently offended others as well, such as the miffed train conductor who coldly informed me that I was guilty of fare evasion because I had traveled outside the region covered by my student transportation pass. At times, missteps as trivial as forgetting to bring my own bags to the grocery store or being scolded by an elderly woman for encroaching on what was apparently her side of the bicycle path were enough to send me home fighting back tears of frustration.
Eventually, however, I opened my German bank account, filled my bedroom with furniture, became familiar with the university, and established a daily routine. I now know my favorite jogging routes by heart, which supermarket has the best produce but also the longest lines, which bakery makes my favorite pastry. Tasks like paying rent, shopping for groceries, and preparing for class presentations have become basic components of daily life rather than formidable tests of intercultural fluency and personal will. Nonetheless, friends from home still email me with exclamations such as, “Wow, you’re in Germany! That’s awesome! What’s it like?” As I formulate my reply, I am torn each time between the prideful thrill of knowing that I am doing something “different” and the disheartening realization that my day-to-day life is actually not all that different from theirs.
Yet it is at these moments that I am reminded of the true beauty of moving and living abroad: namely, the sensation of normality. I no longer need to spend 30 minutes wandering the aisles of the supermarket just to find canned pineapple or peanut butter, nor do I wake up with an empty refrigerator on a Sunday morning. Paying my semester university fees takes thirty seconds instead of ten minutes. I have learned the rhythm of the stoplights and know how long I can daydream until the red turns green. I can rattle off my phone number, address, and student ID number at will (although dictating them in English is admittedly more of a struggle). And upon looking more closely, I realize that my life is still peppered with various events that provide a rush reminiscent of the thrills from the settling in period, events that are now all the more meaningful because I know what I had to undergo to reach this point. When disoriented strangers stop me in the street to ask for directions to the central train station or the nearest drugstore, I can tell them exactly where to go without wondering afterwards whether I have accidentally sent them in the wrong direction. I smile to myself when purchasing produce at the city’s daily open-air market, not only because such an event would never be part of my weekly routine in the United States, but also because it feels so normal.
Most people do not remember most days of their lives because familiarity and routine blend the days and weeks and months into a seamless pattern of repeating activities delineated only by occasional deviations from the status quo. But even while wading through this sea of normality, I involuntarily feel the occasional chill down my spine walking home from the library, joining the line at the cash register, sitting down in the train, hanging up the phone, or sitting down at a restaurant, and I remember how everything had used to feel so foreign, how much I used to struggle, and how much I have learned along the way.