This is part two in a series. You can read part one here.
I had always wanted to spend time outside of the United States, but I hadn’t wanted to do it by spending a college semester abroad. I loved my school, and I felt like spending a semester somewhere else would be a waste of a chunk of the only time that I would ever spend there. I would go abroad later, I said, once I’m finished studying and on my own terms. From the sounds of it semesters abroad were a lot more about drinking, avoiding classwork but getting credit for it anyway, and completely failing at mixing with any locals, and those weren’t my terms at all.
After a year of proofreading, I also knew that 9-5 corporate work wasn’t for me. Everything I read, everything I thought—it was all pointing to one inevitability. I had to quit, and I had to go do something that would give credit to the short years of my life. Back then I had detailed plans about spending a year in France (where I would learn French so that I could take the UN translator’s exam and get a job that probably sounded a lot more interesting than it actually was), but I didn’t really have any savings to speak of—all of my extra cash had gone into paying off my loans. So instead of planning a care-free, job-free year abroad, I started looking for jobs in Europe. I threw resumes at everything that moved, and when the government didn’t take me (thank cod), an au pair agency did.
The decision to move to Germany to spend a year au pairing for some rich family’s brats (you can read all about them here, by the way) may be the only decision I’ve ever made that inspired vocal doubt in my mother. But after she briefly stated her concerns (that au pairing was “below” me, by which I assume she meant “a really stupid career choice for someone who just spent over $100,000 for a college education”), she never mentioned it again. And look at me now, ma. Still in Germany seven years later, a kid, a husband, and a job doing something I love, something that is even related to what I studied. It’s not what you expect from the front-end of an au pairing job. I didn’t know it then, but it was the first baby step in the direction of what Shannon Hayes refers to as “reclaiming” in her book Radical Homemakers. In case you missed the quote the first time I posted it:
RECLAIMING: In the second stage, the “reclaiming” period, Radical Homemakers were recovering the many skills that enabled them to build a life without a conventional income. This “phase” can take a few years or a lifetime, and homemakers will perpetually return to it as they build even more skills. Initially, this is an exciting and tremendously fulfilling period, as people regain their self-reliance. Interestingly, if the homemakers dwelled only in this realm for too long, they began to manifest some symptoms of Friedan’s housewife’s syndrome—maliase, feeling lost, aimless, or occasionally depressed, or wondering “what’s this all for?”
Though my year au pairing didn’t leave me with any skills that would enable me to live without money, it was a year of exploration. I oscillated between the doldrums (an unavoidable part of the start of expatdom) and inspiration born of more reading. I put together a zine called These are our weapons, which I never got around to photocopying and distributing (you can read some of the words meant for those pages in the zine graveyard), but which centered around the idea that our weapons in this fight against everything that felt wrong could be spoons and pens, paint brushes and sewing needles. Radical Homemakers would have blown me into next week if I had read it back then; it was exactly the wavelength I was just starting to find my footing on. I became interested in the little messages spread across the walls of the city through graffiti and rain-wrinkled flyers.
When I decided to stay in Germany, I got a job (teaching English) that would allow me to pay my bills with only about 20 hours of work a week. I dumpster dived constantly, and I continued to suck in inspiration by way of the printed page. Living My Life by Emma Goldman. Days of War Nights of Love by CrimethInc. Rules for Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky. And so many more. I prefered drinking a 30 cent beer in the park to going to a bar, though I did plenty of both. I rode my bike everywhere. I learned how to build a tall bike. I was in love with life and enjoying every single second of it. No corporate job was going to steal another minute of my all-too-short time to enjoy life as Nicolette Stewart. It was another small step.