This morning I had a free block of time so I grabbed my camera, hopped on my bike and took off with no particular destination in mind. I stopped over by the castle and couldn’t help but notice these trees. Their branches have only become barren in the last week, though it seems the transformation has occurred overnight. There is something profound about branches without all of their proverbial bells and whistles. Winter is a time for nature’s true essence to be fully exposed.
This week I have been thinking a lot about how I define my identity. I come from a culture that largely defines a person’s identity based on what they are doing, especially in the college environment where it is important to be constantly involved and building a good resume. Coming abroad for a year meant leaving behind many of the activities with which I have built my identity. Without all of the bells and whistles of a jam-packed schedule I have been able to spend more time doing creative projects I wouldn’t normally have time for (this blog, for example). I am having to re-train my brain to base my identity not on the clubs and activities I usually do but on the things I am discovering and learning about the world. Being in a different environment without the shell of my established identity challenges me to live fully into my true essence, completely raw and exposed. This is definitely not easy, especially coming from a culture where “busier” is often synonymous with “better”. I am still busy here, but in an entirely different way. And I’m finding that letting go of my previously conceived notions of my own identity and embracing new experiences in my truest element is extremely freeing.
Last Saturday I found myself in the cooking ingredient aisle of my favorite grocery store. I was searching for baking powder (das Backpulver). I stared at the same four shelves for about 23 minutes until an older lady with a cane had to help me pick it out of a stack of muffin mixes. I’m not going to lie, I am not known for my cooking abilities. Up until about two weeks ago I was getting by on basic salads, scrambled eggs and mensa food. But then I turned a corner. I started branching out in my grocery shopping, getting avocados and spinach-filled pasta. I began to eat mostly at home, making elaborate chef salads, guacamole, and sautéed vegetables with my own pasta sauces. It’s like my own food Enlightenment is occurring. So when my friend Jingwei approached me about doing a group Sunday brunch at home with Martina, the other AJYer, I immediately agreed to make the pancakes. I found a simple pancake recipe on a men’s dating website: “One thing every man needs to know how to make: Your basic pancake!” Feeling empowered to break the gender stereotype of the website I began guest-imating measurements because I was too lazy to convert everything from the U.S. system on the men’s dating site to the metric system. Last Sunday morning it seemed like everyone in my house was, for the first time since I’ve been here, in the kitchen at the same time (note: this means 25 people in one kitchen). So as I’m standing at the stove top mixing what is at this point a very abstract pancake mix with a sketchy men’s dating site as my trusty guide I have about as much personal space as I would in a mosh pit at a concert. Literally. My German housemates have noticed my own personal cooking revolution and just let me do my thing, but they were curious as to what I was trying to do. “Amerikanische Idee, deutsche Materialen!” I shouted over the roar of the soundtrack someone was blaring through the speakers. (“American concept, German materials!”) In the end, some of the pancakes were a bit burnt on the edges, though it was nothing some Nutella and peanut butter couldn’t cover up. They tasted half decent, too. And now Sunday brunch is going to be a weekly event because, well, I have a LOT of flour and some very expensive organic syrup imported from Canada (the one kind of syrup in the store). Will I perfect the American pancake from scratch, without measurements and with German ingredients? It’s very unclear. I’m just glad I finally have the confidence in the kitchen to give it a go. Here’s to personal revolutions!
Once a week I take a tram out to the little town of Schriesheim. I then climb a mini-mountain to the home of a German family that just moved back to Germany after living in Australia for three years. I then hang out with/babysit the two oldest kids (8 and 10) and speak English with them for several hours. Yesterday I was doing some art projects with the 10-year-old girl and realized two things:
1. German pens and markers are FANTASTIC. We’re talking about a whole different level of penmanship here. I knew this before but it was only further confirmed during this craft session.
2. It had been TOO LONG since I attempted any visual creative art project (besides photography).
As soon as I left their house I walked directly into the town and found the supply shop my 10-year-old friend and pen expert had recommended. I then spent much of what I had just earned on basic art supplies. Last night after a documentary night with my friend Liz I started chopping paper and organizing the beginning stages of a collage (pictured above). It has a long way to go but I cannot TELL you how good it felt to work on a project like this. For me it’s not about the end result but the joy in the process. Usually when I start a collage or painting I ferociously abandon all other tasks until it is finished several hours later. Because I don’t have that kind of time right now, I am spreading this out, little by little, learning to enjoy the process and be more present-minded instead of results-oriented, an important skill to cultivate when learning a language.
This is my friend Deepa. She is in the AJY program and studies at Boston College. I remember this quote from early on in our friendship:
“When I was a kid, I laughed at my parents’ accents. My dad couldn’t say the word “tortoise”. Now that I’m learning German I feel guilty for having laughed when I was younger. Being submerged in another culture and trying to get by with the language is hard work. For example, I can’t say the German word for fire hose, “Feuerwehrschläuche”. I guess you could say this experience has made me more empathetic.”
Other important information you should know about Deepa: She loves toast, falafel, hails from King of Prussia Pennsylvania, and can often be spotted wearing a beanie and quoting her favorite philosophers. She’s a witty character and I’m proud to know her.
Last night the DAI Library (where I intern) hosted a 50th Anniversary JFK Memorial event. I went to show my support and because I thought it would be interesting. A couple of my friends came along and I had told my colleagues I would photograph the event and needed to get some video footage for a promotional project I’m currently working on for the library. The first half of the program consisted of Americans in their sixties and seventies recollecting where they were at the time of JFK’s death. Most of them had either met him personally or had some personal connection to the Kennedy family. I found these personal accounts to be pretty moving. Every single person marked the moment of JFK’s death as a significant turning point in their own life. Anytime a group of people gathers in a formal setting to hear another person’s story is a fantastic thing (man, I miss speech team!). What struck me most, however, is that it was the most I’ve heard American adults speak English since I’ve been here. There is something comforting and innately, deeply familiar about hearing your native language in a context like this after not hearing it for several months.
For those of you who don’t know, my brother has been living in Beirut for the past eight months doing work for a non-profit organization that is helping with the Syrian crisis. This past weekend he was able to visit me as part of a visa-renewal trip. I hadn’t seen the kid in eight months, and our reunion felt like a magnificent holiday. There is no word or phrase that can describe how awesome it was to be reunited. Aside from enjoying Heidelberg together, we did what we do best: talked, swapped music, and marveled at life. These types of reunions are the elixir of life. After he got back to Beirut today, he texted me that was safe but that the Iranian embassy in Beirut had been bombed hours before his arrival. Had he known this earlier, he would have stayed here for a few more days. His visit was a harrowing reminder of how much I take my safety and security for granted. There are so many countries, states, and cities around the world that are experiencing violent conflict and utter catastrophe right this second. Security is a first world luxury. All we can do is remind ourselves of that and take absolutely nothing for granted. In Germany, everything is orderly, clean, dependable, and ultimately grounded in wealth. The challenges of living here for me have stemmed from trying to live out the language. I so easily forget that many deal with challenges of basic human security on a daily basis.
This is one of my favorite spots in Heidelberg. It’s a quaint bookstore on Hauptstrasse packed with old books. I could spend hours in this place. Including the basement, there are technically four floors of books…each floor with its own comfortable nooks and crannies. This brings me to an observation about the university life here at Heidelberg, and perhaps at German universities in general. When you ask someone what they did yesterday, they’ll say “Ich habe gelernt,” which translates directly to “I learned.” In the States we’d say “I studied” or “I researched” or “I worked on a project”. The entire German uni system is different, right down to the root of how people think about, well, learning. People sit for hours in coffee shops, their rooms, libraries and book stores not to knock out yet another essay or paper or project but to actually read, contemplate, and learn. They’ve found the delight in doing so. I LOVE this kind of environment. People clumped all over the city around candlelit tables, just reading to read and learning to learn. It’s really quite something.