I suppose time has always moved at this pace, but with something to measure it by, it always appears to have sped up behind my back. The end of another school year, the celebration of another birthday, the day that marks your six-year anniversary in a country you landed in—in fact, stayed in—completely by accident.
I made the decision to come to Germany on a whim. Instead of moving to the Marshall Islands to teach English after graduating from college (as I occasionally envisioned in the hazy daydreams between thesis drafts), I took a 9-5 proofreading at a local custom publishing company. But once I had paid off my college loans, I started looking for jobs abroad once again. It was a complete coincidence, a joke really, that landed me an au pair in Frankfurt am Main. (You can, by the way, read all about the year I spent au pairing in an already very long, but still incomplete series by clicking here.)
Yet, six years later, here I am: still in Germany, living in a 60-year-old wooden caravan in an intentional community, the co-editor and writer of an ex-pat website, married, a bun in the oven, and no immediate prospect of returning to the States (as in, for good) on the horizon. Even if there are other dimensions out there, parallel universes where other Nikkis are living out the consequences of different strings of decisions, I am still glad to say that I get to live this one. It’s a good thing too—I never was very good at stomaching regret.
An anniversary of this kind is as good reason as any to get philosophical (and thanks to Resident on Earth’s post on the same that finally jump started me into actually writing all this down), and the aforementioned bun has—while making me think more concretely about the future than I might have been—been sending me into fits of nostalgia. Food nostalgia.
I’ve been craving boxed macaroni and cheese and Wheat Thins and my mother’s cooking. I would empty my entire bank account in order to be able to eat just one Doughboy from Esperanto’s in Saratoga. Or one of their veggie burritos with heaps of salsa from the little salsa bar next to the condiments. Or a dish from any of the other fine culinary establishments there (can you hear the drool dripping onto my keyboard?). These are all things I haven’t particularly thought about or missed in years—six years to be exact—but whose absence has been registering as a saddening presence during the past few weeks.
When people ask me what I miss about the United States, my first answer is always “the people.” Not the people in general, cod knows there are more than enough people in America who I can’t stand/scare the shit out of me, but specific people whose friendships I no longer get to enjoy in person. My second answer is always, “and the used book stores.” And that is sometimes followed closely by a “and the second hand shops.” (Oxfam can’t hold a candle to Goodwill and Salvation Army.) And now I can add, “the food.”
These aren’t things I dwell on much, and when the bun’s presence stops sending urgent cravings to my brain, you won’t find me philosophizing. But the cravings and the nostalgia have spurned me to contemplate the ways in which this “foreign” place has become so completely my home, and the ways in which I still attempt to straddle the two countries, perhaps unwilling to accept my permanence here completely. Have I truly arrived in this place?
Germany is great, but as I tell those who ask, “It’s as great an any other country, and it’s as shitty as any other country. I just happen to be very happy here right now, and I don’t have the energy to move.” But it is more than that. I’m in love with the public transportation. I like the bread. The food is cheap. The place I live is sweet. People don’t call me crazy for using a bicycle or my feet as forms of transportation. I can find common political ground with your average person-on-the-street. I enjoy speaking German. I have a bank account, a government insurance plan, and a library card. And there are castles, everywhere.
I can imagine moving back to America, though when I start to think about what that would entail—no public transport, even more fucked up laws, right wing insanity en mass, a shitty economy, and a far lower job market value as an English speaker—I fall into a panic. And it turns out there are only two habits that keep me straddling the two countries: I still have an American bank account (and credit card) and I buy all my books used on half.com or amazon.com and either pick them up or have my mom bring them over when she visits. The former is a convenience, and the latter a product of my obsession with reading and the extreme lack of interesting English-language material in the Mainz public library (“The libraries” should be added to that list of things I miss while we’re at it).
At first the thought bothered me. “Am I refusing to fully live in the present, in this place, because I refuse to find other avenues, expensive though they may be, to get a hold of books?” For several days I wasn’t sure. Then I wrote the thought down and found that the question seemed absurd on paper. Exploiting the option to get cheap, inspiring reading material does not me a nostalgia-infested expat make. No, now I am sure of it: I have arrived, though I may be the last one to have noticed.