Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My German Life: Emotional Breakdown

I knew it was coming. I mean, eventually the rosy glow would wear off and we'd be seeing life in Germany through plain old every day glasses. We'd been doing well without a car, the new world of public transportation was fascinating and exciting at first. The thrill of riding buses and streetcars has been exhilarating not only for the kids, but for me as an adult, trying to understand the systems and navigate them. I was even beginning to think I'd rather not have a car, hopping on a strass is so fun and you get to people-watch the whole ride without having the stress of driving.
Last week I finally took the driver's test. Our car was due to arrive this week from its long cruise across the Atlantic and it was time I stop procrastinating and learn the German street signs. I took it, and failed it. Of course I was very upset that day but since it has something like a 70% fail rate I decided not to beat myself up too much. Okay, I'll just be honest, I failed both the written and driving tests in Oklahoma and had to beg Georgia to just renew my old license. So I wasn't expecting to pass a test in a different country right away.
This week I had to go back and take the test, and the only reasonable way to get there was to ride my bike. I have not ridden a bike since 1998, the summer before I went to college. So when my husband got my bike all ready to go and expected me to just hop on and hit the streets, it scared me to death. Bike riding here is serious business. Germans take classes and get licensed to ride their bikes when they are pre-teens, which makes sense considering they are riding on the roads with cars and following the same rules. After a couple of practice runs around my kaserne, I was finally feeling ready to hit the real streets. So this week I followed Joel over to the licensing office on my bike. We crossed bridges and intersections, weaved off the bike paths and into car traffic and made it through a roundabout without dying. I know that sounds totally dramatic, but right before we left Oklahoma, a guy we knew was riding his bicycle one day and a woman in a minivan hit him and he died on impact. For me, biking is a seriously risky mode of travel now.
But I have to say, I absolutely loved it. Riding through Heidelberg with the sharp October wind biting my face was both terrifying and exhilarating. I don't think anything has excited me this much in years. Even the rides at Hershey Park and Disney were no competition. The fact that I could in fact get mowed down by a strassenbahn made it all the more thrilling (Apparently this happens a lot over here; it's a very popular method of suicide, so the strass drivers don't feel bad if they hit a biker because they figure that's just the way he or she wanted to go down).
Not having a car is the strangest experience and yet it has been so liberating for me. There are, however, the inevitable moments where you wish so very much to be part of that privileged class that is jetting around in their heated automobiles. Like the other day, when I carried a very heavy box (it contained a bike trailer for the kids to ride around in) from the bus stop to our apartment. I carried it as far as I could, gave up, ditched it on the side of my road, retrieved the stroller from my house, loaded the box onto it and pushed it, cursing, all the way back to our place. I was really angry at all the people who watched my struggle and never bothered to stop and help me. And then there was today, when Helen and I tried so hard to catch the last bus to the PX, and because of her potty issues and tantrums and a thousand little things, we just barely missed it. I even waved pathetically at the driver as he pulled away without me; he stared off in the other direction in a very German sort of way, as if to let me know my problems weren't his problems.
I snapped at Helen that she made us miss the bus, and she broke down into tears. She wept and wept and when we arrived back at the apartment, she made a big show of running out into the street and wailing, "Bus! Bus! Bus!" I picked her up and held her, tried to explain that we missed it, but it really was okay. She cried some more and I felt like crying too; we had been defeated. She finally cried herself to sleep in my arms and I placed her in her bed.
Life's like that. Missed connections. Loss. Lots of weeping for what you think you've missed out on. But I don't believe I've really missed out on anything. We may have had an emotional breakdown, and my love affair with life in Germany may be waning, but what is the truth? Life is still rich and full of surprises, regardless of the setting or the circumstances. Tomorrow will yield its own treasures and as for today, well, we just received notification: Our car is here! We can pick it up today! The transportation gods have smiled on us.

PS. I did pass my driver's test the second go around :) I am finally licensed to drive in Germany.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My German Life: My Life as a Recycler

For the record: I'm a lazy person. Yep, Mom and Dad, I said it. I have always been the shirker of my family. Growing up, I'd head straight to the bathroom after meals to avoid helping with the dishes. If anyone disturbed me, I'd complain I was having a difficult b.m. and to leave me alone. I was actually reading. I'd hang out in the bathroom for an hour if that's what it took to shirk my dishwasher-loading duties. This is probably too much info for the masses, but at this point my sisters are reading this and laughing that I just told the world about this idiosyncrasy. My husband is laughing because he knows I still do this as an adult.
Seriously. I really hate cleaning. Ask anyone who has ever lived with me and they will all have stories about my ability to get out of cleaning (sorry, Beth). My laziness also extends to any activity that is tedious, time-consuming, or just plain boring in my estimation. I like to establish a framework of low expectations when I meet people. I do this with my son's preschool (and now kindergarten) teachers by failing to complete the first project they send home with him and being late at least 3 out of the first 5 mornings of school. I do this with family and friends by never calling them or replying to their emails. I do this with neighbors by forgetting to pick my son up at the bus stop. This way I can't really disappoint people because they've given up on me from the get-go. They just shrug their shoulders and figure "That's Kim, she's a real space cadet." Or slightly worse, that I'm incorrigibly lazy.
When I moved to Germany last month I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that they recycle. A lot. In fact, "the Germans like to think of themselves as the world champions of the environment" ( There are whole websites dedicated to explaining the complex process of sorting your trash in Germany; really, google it. Somehow I missed out on this information before I came to Heidelberg. When I arrived, other Army spouses immediately complained to me that the only difficulty adjusting was getting used to recycling. I thought they were just exaggerating, you know, being lazy.
We moved into the apartment and I was handed a very detailed list, outlining the SIX categories into which I was now going to sort my trash: Yellow trash, Paper, Compost, Glass, Rubbish, and Hazardous waste. Yellow trash (the bins outside are color-coded) goes in the Yellow trash bags and includes such items as aluminum foil, plastic bags and milk cartons, but DOES NOT include containers made of paper only, diapers, or adhesive tape. This sounds somewhat manageable until you actually try to do it. I do not have a disposal in my sink; all food waste must go into the Compost bin, which DOES NOT include bones, oils, cigarette butts or sanitary pads (duh!). Really, each category lists what it does include and then what it does not include.
So I laminated the list and put it next to my kitchen sink. I went to IKEA and bought more trashcans. I now have THREE under my sink, and the small compost container on my counter.
Nothing has ever made me feel as neurotic and OCD as recycling in Germany. I was informed that I could be fined for not sorting my trash. If you fail to take your batteries to the proper place for recycling hazardous waste, you are breaking German law. I wanted to freak out and run to the bathroom and hide away with my September Vogue. Instead, all these threats and the detailed nature of the list sent me into trash-sorting overdrive. I would spend thirty minutes staring at my various cans trying to decide which one the toy packaging with plastic, cardboard, staples and adhesive tape should go in. Finally I would painstakingly pull apart the packaging, putting the plastic in the Yellow can, the cardboard in the Paper can, the staples in the Yellow can and the tape in the Rubbish can. I am not lying. Ask my mother, she was there. I yelled at her for mixing it all up. I almost cried over whether or not to dump a few coffee grounds out of my french press into the sink, or to scrape them out into the compost with my fingernails.
After a few days I started to get the hang of the process and to notice it less. And then a new feeling started to invade me: pride. I began to take pride in what I was doing. I've never recycled in my life. I've never lived anywhere in the US where we had recycling pick-up, and I sure as hell wasn't going to go out of my way driving my crap to a recycle center to save the earth. But now that I have to do it, it makes sense to me. There is something so pleasing about knowing that the food my kids waste and throw on the floor is not going to a dump, but being turned into nutrient rich plant fertilizer. I really do feel so much better about the the things we throw away now.
I know I'm waxing poetic about trash, and this makes me sound like some lunatic Greenie. But for a girl who has always been incorrigibly lazy, it just feels good to put a little effort into something for once. It's just another reason I'm so glad I moved to beautiful Deutschland.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My German Life: Downtown

As a kid, I remember listening to my mom singing along to the B52's song, "Downtown." You know, the one that goes, "When you're alone / and life is making you lonely / You can always go Downtown / When you've got worries, / All the noise and the hurry / Seems to help, I know, Downtown." This song never made sense to me growing up. I lived in suburbia and we went to the air-conditioned mall. Downtown was a wreck of a place, littered with drug dealers and gun-toting gangsters, and every respectable merchant had long ago deserted it. As an adult, I've moved quite a bit, but always to southern suburbia, with air-conditioned malls and no character. Until Heidelberg.
A couple of days ago I hopped on the strassenbahn with Helen and her stroller and we headed downtown. In Heidelberg, the old song just makes sense. There really is something magical about strolling the Hauptstrasse (main street) all the way down to the heart of the city, the altstadt (old town). This was the first time I'd gone to town alone and I reveled in the experience, the strange way being alone in a crowd made me feel so NOT alone. I tried to slow down a bit and notice things I hadn't before: the smells for instance. Downtown smells like tobacco smoke and food. The ubiquitous Turkish kebap stands send our their aroma which mingles with the traditional smells of schnitzels and bratwurst. The sounds are varied by the day of the week, traveling bands set up on the hauptstrasse and play music from their native Spain or Turkey, or stringed quartets pay homage to classical greats. On this day it was a lone accordian-player looking for a few euro cents. The sights run the gamut from exquisite to disturbing. There are beautiful German students and fashionable Italian tourists. There are alleys holding secret gardens and fountains that beg for company. There are shops bursting with ethnic goods from all over the world. The architecture in downtown is really stunning for its detail, and I noticed you can tell who the tourists are because they are the ones looking up, staring awestruck at roofs corniced with knights and walls stuccoed with mermaids. But there are not-so-lovely sights too, beggars dot the Haupt, displaying missing limbs and horribly frostbitten legs in hopes that the horror will bring more euros from tourists.
Being alone in downtown affords one the ability to chat easily with strangers in shops; I suppose I looked approachable as a young mother with a bubbly little girl. I ended up at my destination, a Morroccan shop that sells wall-sconces I wanted. The dear old shop-owner tried his level best to speak English with me. "No sprechen sie deutsch" I apologized. "French?" he questioned eagerly. "Nein" I was embarrased to reply, and so he soldiered on in English for me. He kept apologizing for his "not-so-good English" as we negotiated our terms for the sale and I laughed to think he knows at least two and a half languages and I know only one. A customer came in and he helped translate for us, and I left the shop amused and fulfilled with my interactions. People are so fascinating for both their strangeness and sameness.
The air took on a different scent at this point, the smell of rain. And then it began to sprinkle lightly, as it does on many a German afternoon, but instead of dispersing the crowds, it seemed to heighten the mood of the streetgoers. People seemed to be smiling even more, as if we were all now part of each other, a single body snaking the strasse, enjoying a cool mist on our collective face.
What is it about a new place, a foreign place, that lightens the heart? Why have famous authors like Mark Twain and Henry James tried so hard to convey their delight in their travels? I know I haven't really described Heidelberg for you. You were not there, and cannot know the way it really feels to walk the cobblestones. Just as Innocents Abroad fails to touch my heart, I suppose my blogging will not touch yours. You must experience it for yourself. You must come to Heidelberg some day. Call me, and I will meet you at the Bismarkplatz in ten minutes :)

Bethanien Krankenhaus

I watch you pushing her and you make a lovely pair
until I look closer and see your expression.
I try to decipher it, make conjectures about your pain.
She is so happy, so embarrassingly happy to be with you,
to escape her room and be wheeled past the strass,
wind ruffling her grey feathered head as she smiles at you.

But you are pained by this stroll and I wonder what she did.
Leave your father when you were a little girl? Leave you?
Did she force her dreams on you? Give you no latitude for your own?
Or did you just live as strangers, never sharing the heart's ticking?
Perhaps you are simply torn by your choice, to wheel her chair
back to those tight white walls and leave her there.

I inhale my cigarette deeply and then crush it in the flowerbed,
The bakery's bench a too-short respite from my own walls.
I watch you forcing a smile for her as you pass graffiti,
"LOVE" (or is it LONE?) in jagged letters on the wall.