and eleven makes six

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 or 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.

9 Comments on “and eleven makes six

  1. Congratulations. It’s my six year anniversary, too. I thought I was being sentimental, acknowledging it to myself. But is a big deal, isn’t it.

    Burritos are also top on the list of what I miss, but it was Triscuits rather than Wheat Thins that I ate three boxes of the one week I was in Montreal this summer.

    I don’t spend too much wondering why I can’t imagine moving back, but I just can’t.

  2. You know, you’re really living the American dream: you’re a married home-owner with a kid on the way. You have a bank account. You have credit in not one but two countries.

    I’m only just now celebrating my third anniversary in what is arguably as much a foreign land as Germany, but I still ask myself the same questions. But your castles are my 70-degree weather, sunshine, and plentiful avocados.

  3. …and come back to this country with its fucked up political system? Stay where you are. Besides, the bakeries are better there. At least you have konditeri (sp?)

  4. I love your story. A few things:

    -I read a memoir about a guy who taught on the Marhshall islands, called Surviving Paradise, you might enjoy reading about what you “missed”.

    -Yes, I think the castles in Germany are like a fairy tale. But my German teacher in college laughed about them like “oh castles, we’ve seen them our whole lives”.

    -Yes, the politics here are scary. I have relatives who claim they would vote for Michelle Bachmann if she got the republican nomination. Not sure how close you follow our politics (it’s not worth it even if you live here…) but she’s from MN and incredibly scary.

  5. Yes, Michele Bachmann. Scary. You have no idea (or maybe you do) of how much. It’s like Sarah Palin, but with brains.

  6. For us it was the drinks and not the food that made us homesick at first. Sometimes on a hot day you want to drink huge quantities of water, and they bring you tiny expensive bottles and no ice.

    I’m an American stationed in Germany (not far from Mainz actually). I have no real job skills, and my German is very poor. I have to go back to the States, and I’m scared. My wife and I will be fine, but I wish I didn’t have to take my daughter back to the land of fear and hate.

  7. Gisi: Woo happy anniversary to you too. Mmm Triscuits……

    Jill: Haha. That’s how I sell it to folks who don’t find the sound of my life appealing when described in other words. And suddenly even very conservative folks think my life is awesome. Funny how much difference a turn of phrase can make.

    Paula: Yes and yes. I agree completely. Though I’m not much for sweets, so you’ll rarely find me in a Konditerei.

    FVM: Will have to check out that book. The year when I would have been on those islands there was a huge typhoon too, so in the end I was rather pleased with my decision.

    All the folks I know are just like that about the castles. Like, aaah another castle? Aahhh another vineyard? What a bunch of crap. The Beard especially, having grown up surrounded by grape farms. Funny what perspective can do to a thing.

    And no, I haven’t heard of Michele Bachman. But what you guys are saying sounds…*shudder*

    Israel Walker: Oh the water. I def appreciate all the free cold water in American restaurants. But I’ve just gotten used to always bringing my own. When are you heading back to the States? Best of luck. (!!!!!!!)

  8. “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” – YES! This is why I pine for Germany daily. I spent three years as a child there after we left Romania and then three more years as an adult. I’m now back in the US and although, like you, I love my friends here, I miss all those things you listed abut Germany and more. And then there are the things that I just CAN’T get used to in the US, just like you wrote.

    I feel I’ve found a kindred spirit here in your blog! 🙂

  9. Nikki, I’ve been on your blog about dumpster diving- it was an introduction of a new concept for me from a ‘normal’ person who is not homeless. I lived in Santa Monica at the time- it costs sooo much for rent & food there! That was an immense struggle. So u can imagine you touched me and peeked my interest. I am now in Holland (almost 3 months) and considering to stay. But first I’d loove to go visit your community. Would this be possible? esther

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