Warning: this piece contains higher-than-usual levels of nostalgia. Read at your own will.
It is 9:14pm as I write this. I am sitting in the AJY center, surrounded by a mountain of books and papers. I am finishing a fifteen page linguist pilot study paper in English for one of my English classes. I am exhausted and have never worked so hard in my life. The past month in general, and especially the last two weeks have been full of the usual end of the semester stresses, in addition to the assignments most German students have two additional months to complete after the semester ends. Because my semester at the other Heidelberg will begin shortly, I must complete everything before I leave on Thursday. I’ve gone from feeling sad that I can’t fully soak up my remaining days doing things I enjoy, revisiting my favorite places and visiting with friends to having serious anxiety about how I am going to manage to pull everything off, take my last (hardest) exam the day before I leave, and pack. And yet I sit here, writing this, because as I just biked back through the city I was struck by the overwhelmingly beautiful essence of this place and this time, and the importance of pausing, even at life’s most pressing moments, to take note of it.
Many people say “I lost my heart in Heidelberg”. The phrase was originally in a pop song which was later made into several stage productions. Nearly every kid who studies abroad here utters the phrase in moments of nostalgia either toward the end of their stay or after they return home. But I’ve always struggled with this phrase. I haven’t “lost” my heart here, my heart and mind have been made fuller. I have grown in ways I didn’t previously imagine to be possible and have learned to see the world in a drastically different light. I have met incredible people, seen incredible views, and will carry all of this with me as I move forward. And I have worked. Hard. This has not been a walk in the park (though there were many literal walks in literal parks). Coming here this year was the best decision I’ve ever made. I also couldn’t be more excited to return to my American home; to see my people. To embrace air conditioning and garbage disposals (you’d be surprised at the things you come to miss) and free water in restaurants. To hug people in public and not have to do small loads of laundry every three days because of the washer sizes. There is good everywhere, that I know. And as difficult and unbearable and utterly overwhelming as transitions can be, they can be beautiful, too. But I refuse to “lose” my heart anywhere. If anything I gained a lot of heart this year. But that heart comes home with me, it doesn’t stay here. And it is time for me to enter into the next adventure. Sure, I will miss this place everyday. But part of what makes this place so dear to me has been this time, and the fact that everything was temporary.
As I rode my bike through the city, I took note of the couples eating outside at restaurants, their flatbreads half-eaten and their faces aglow. I took note of the hanging lights outside at the mensa and the way the warm summer air, freshly conjured from the river swept through the conversations of those strolling through Heidelberg’s illustrated cobblestone streets, carrying with it street performances from the old bridge. And I took note of how truly blessed I am to have gotten to be here, in this place, at this time, to have had opportunities that have pushed me so hard and allowed me to grow so deeply. And in that moment I felt truly humbled, for this entire experience has been a humbling one. And though I will one day crave every last detail of this place, no part of me has been lost. And it’s no way to live; constantly imagining your body parts being left behind all over the world. Rather, I will carry pieces of the world with me, into the next chapter. I refuse to do it any other way.
Once a week per semester, each person living in my house has kitchen duty. This involves scrubbing down the kitchen in the morning and at night, washing the towels, sorting bottles, and sweeping. Once I had to scrub the inside of the oven, which was rough. Based on my excavation findings, there is a lot of history in that thing. But the most challenging part of Kitchen Duty (Küchedienst) is the trash. After nearly eleven months I have FINALLY mastered the German trash system, but it has not been an easy journey. Much like the German health care system, the German trash and recycling system is lightyears ahead of its North American friends. What you see displayed above is BIO (far right), which is for anything biodegradable…basically compost. The yellow bin is for non-paper packaging. This can include milk cartons, grape cartons, plastic tubes, etc. The blue is paper, which includes egg cartons and anything rip-able (my words, not theirs). Finally, if you have anything left to throw out, it goes in Restmüll, which literally means “leftover trash”. Not pictured are two types of glass sorting buckets, and all plastic bottles go in a completely different bin. When I had Kitchen Duty each semester I struggled most with Operation Trash, because there is some overlapping that is allowed to happen. It’s basically like Rock, Paper, Scissors. BIO can technically go into Restmull, Papier can technically go into Gelbtone, but not all Gelbtone can go into Papier and it’s pretty much a low key crime if you put BIO in Restmüll, I mean come on, get it together. Tin foil (I think) qualifies as Gelbtone but I honestly take the cowardly route and play it safe by putting it in Restmull. It may sound simple enough, but there are sometimes split second game time decisions that need to be made, and you just have to give the whole thing your best shot with strange objects that seem to defy trash stereotypes if there is no German around to ask. Honestly, though, this is not a complex system. It’s far more convenient than dumping everything into a giant, pulsating landfill where nothing will be ever be recovered. I know a handful of Americans who are into the recycling scene, an act most Americans don’t think twice about. But why isn’t recycling main-stream in America? And why not to the German extent? Why is this not something we have caught onto?
I took this photo a few weekends back when I was in Berlin. We were in a park, eating a pizza, watching a group of (extremely) eclectic artists play some off-beat, Berlin-esque, it-will-be-cool-in-two-years kind of music. About 86% of the people in the park were wearing dark jackets and thick, angular glasses. There were 4 separate groups of hackie sack players, several rocking chairs at the bottom of the hill, and these guys doing some intense Qigong warm-ups behind us. This, my friends, is where hipsters comes from (in case your had ever wondered). Being in the heart of this quasi-hipster factory was a little jarring, honestly.
These stretching guys represent transition, which is also a little jarring. The one in the white shirt is Transition, and the one in the blue shirt is me. Transition has begun to not just tug, but PULL (pretty forcefully) on my arms, as if to say “Come on Hannah, this is happening, whether or not you’re ready. Just lean into it.” Transition and I are now inseparable as my semester (and time in Germany) come to a close. I have a couple of weeks left and more studying to do than I’d like to admit in writing, publicly. And while this is a seemingly overwhelming process, transitions are meant to stretch us out, to pull us forward. And so I allow myself to be stretched, in this moment, in this proverbial park, because my buddy Transition isn’t giving me much choice.
I found myself rather conflicted a couple of weeks back when Germany played the U.S. in the World Cup. What started out as a casual daydream during a lecture about who to root for turned into an existential dilemma by the end of the day: The Motherland? Or my Motherland?
I invited friends to come over and watch the game in my basement, where every Germany game is projected onto a large screen. My German friends showed up first and convinced me to wear my ragged, once-white-now-gray German soccer shirt. By the time my Americans showed up, however, I was having second thoughts. They scolded me for being “traitorous”. “No”, I told them. “I’m being diplomatic”. Externally I projected my local support, but every time Tim Howard made a save I found myself beaming. I’ve spent much of my life feeling ashamed of how my country is viewed by most of the world. And while this embarrassment still washes over me every time someone in a bar asks me why our foreign policy is the way that it is, or bluntly lets me know how they feel about the Red, White, and the Blue and its extensive list of grievances, I have discovered that I have the power to help shift these projections onto a different sort of screen. And so I tell those people, in their language, that yes, there are many things I would change if I could. But there are many aspects of American culture that make me who I am: a strong work ethic and sense of optimism, a sense of humor, a love of diversity and hospitality.
There is good everywhere, and being able to watch the World Cup in a place with people from all over the world has been a truly unique experience– every evening people from every country imaginable gather on the lawn outside the mensa. To me, the World Cup is a communal celebration of the very basic human fact that everyone comes from somewhere. And a country is so much more than its government, its exports, and its stereotypes. I’ve met people from all over the planet and when I think about their home countries, I think about them. I hope others will do the same for me, long after I’ve left this global cafe.
Something has been really bothering me for quite some time. And I’m not usually one to complain, but this has gone on long enough. I have fully adjusted to German culture…on a human level. But German bird culture is really something I am still coping with. The culture shock has simply never gone away; on the contrary, the tension and pressure mounting. The birds here are sassy, rude, and –dare I say–entitled. They repeatedly challenge me by standing in the road and refusing to move as I ride my bike in their direction, creating a game of chicken which always ends in me swerving at the last second. They fly at my head on the daily. They walk all over my stuff and get uncomfortably close to my food when eating at picnic tables. Like UNCOMFORTABLY close. I lost it last week as I was sitting by the Neckar, trying to get some reading done, as the birds pictured above surrounded me in a sort of oval formation. I tried to stay calm, but they continued to draw in closer. They forced me to secede by running away. Now, I’m a pretty easygoing person. But I simply cannot accept the behavior of the bird community anymore. It has gone too far. Apparently the aspect of German (human) culture which involves a great respect for privacy and personal space was simply NOT transferred to these flying creatures. I’m not sure what I ever did to them, but apparently I rubbed them the wrong way. I think I even heard one laughing at me today as it tried to trip me outside my house. Don’t be fooled by their innocent, feathery exteriors: the birds are boss in this town. And they’re not going anywhere.
I have been fortunate enough to have visited Berlin four times now, thanks to my friend Esther. Not only have I seen a fair amount of the city, I’ve also gotten to experience the city from a Native’s vantage point. It has been a real privilege for me to get to experience the tourism and everyday aspects of Berlin. Esther is now working and has a flat which she shares with two friends. She agreed to let me photograph her as she went through her ordinary routine and as we went through the day together. I call this series “Esther im Alltag”: “Esther in the everyday”. This tiny project (of which these photos are only a sampling) is a celebration of the tiny details of our lives, inspired by a French photographer friend I met in Heidelberg this year who specializes in this type of photography. I think people often assume that only “vacation” moments are worth noticing and appreciating, but I beg to differ. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my time in Heidelberg, it’s that everyday, no matter how empty or full or mundane or unique, is full of opportunities which deserve to be fully seen, even if only for a second. And you don’t have to have a camera to appreciate them.
Last weekend I did a “Berlin von Unten” tour. Berlin Unterwelten is a tour company which takes visitors through old bunkers, forts, tunnels and air raid shelters from WWII. My particular tour explored one of the last remaining air raid shelters in Berlin.
“Don’t touch the walls, and don’t panic if you see smoke” were the first words our tour guide uttered in the dark opening corridor behind an unsuspecting green door in the subway station.
The good news? I’m not claustrophobic so this turned out to be a fascinating experience. We weren’t allowed to touch the walls because they were painted with a special chemical by the Nazis which made them glow in the dark. Room after room revealed details of the lives of those who had regularly sought protection during bomb raids: bunk beds, an infirmary, old bathrooms, empty rooms. The stale, thick air made the experience extremely authentic. One doesn’t usually think about the everyday life of civilians living the with and in the reality of war. The tour gave me a deeper appreciation for those in the past and present whose lives were and are lined with constant, numbing fear. We weren’t allowed to take photos while underground, but this is a photo near the entrance. Everyday thousands of people descend and ascend, oblivious to the stories behind the green door.