Clusters of Intensely Coloured Years

I have been wondering if homesickness is nostalgia in another guise.

When I miss home, home as the place in which I was born, the place which holds most of my family and friends, most of my touchstones and so many of my memories, quite often I miss specific, long-gone scenes and moments. I miss Sunday morning breakfasts when I lived at home with my parents when my Dad would sing really loudly and there’d be a dog on a doormat somewhere; I miss getting ready with the girls and going out to a bar Sydney had momentarily deemed cool, that breathtaking anticipation that hums in the background of a night out; I miss cousin-filled Christmasses, Nan dropping in for a cup of tea, early evening swims, summer days at Macmasters Beach.

It wasn’t until recently that I realised most of the things I miss, most of the things I feel homesick for, are things I cannot have anymore anyway. If I were to move back home it would not mean reclaiming all of those precise moments I associate with Australia, all of those precise moments that have, by their very nature, simply been outgrown. I am homesick then, I suppose, for a time and if that isn’t nostalgia, what is? Or are homesickness and nostalgia, for those living so far away, like those friends who are always together, who wear similar clothes and talk with the same inflections and intonations and whose names you always mix up? Yes, that, I think.

Of course, this is not a feeling I find myself in and unable to clamber out of. Rather, both nostalgia and homesickness are a constant, some days felt more keenly than others, a studied, acknowledged constant. Without them, I would feel remiss, without them I would forget to stop and absorb it all. Although, as I grow older and I watch my children take their first steps in a world I feel I only really just met myself, nostalgia has begun to reassert herself over homesickness. Nostalgia paints blocks of time with her golden brush and the moment they end, I feel their loss.

Now that we have moved and are in the process of settling in and making a new home (my toddler’s favourite expression right now, ‘new home Mummy, new home!’) I find myself missing moments from our apartment in the city. But they really are moments, moments that themselves would have ended with time, regardless of whether we had moved. Now that she searches for ‘nails’ in the garden, I recall walking with both kids on a bright, crisp morning with die Lüdde pointing out every single Smart Car and Mini Cooper within a 5km radius. I miss the daily walks to the ice-cream bar last summer.

Perhaps miss is the wrong word. I feel we have left them behind these places and these times, that they have joined other bygone days of an ever forward-marching life. I feel the closing of a time I can now only watch through a window, a golden window, but one that prohibits my hand from reaching in and rearranging a scene or moving a figure.

That part of my life has been lived, that is the sweet loss I feel. This living of eras, of short clusters of intensely coloured years, is something I have noticed occurring since my daughter was born. The newborn haze, the only-child days, the kids-in-the-bath-together years, the first family home years – these eras, these clusters that arrive without warning and leave just as quietly, they are among the most precious things I have.

If only I could keep them; they leave all too soon.

Settling In

It is like we collectively exhaled and out came 37 Ikea Billy shelves and piles of dresses I fit into a decade ago when I wore heels all the time and hadn’t had two kids. And three million books. And four million moving cartons that are currently and irritatingly wedged between a wall and the washing machine. Does anybody need moving cartons? Has anyone seen my sanity? It was slim and weak and a little pale, but I swear I had it.

Die Lüdde asks to go outside every morning, straight after breakfast. We have planted wild strawberries and mint and are waiting to see what the pruned stumps with fresh green growth will turn out to be. There is an apple tree and a plum tree and enough room in our little yard to build up a sandpit. It feels nice to be outside in the cool mornings, and nice to have the doors open in the warmer evenings and hear only the birds. The drive back into the city winds through two tiny villages with old Reetdachhäuse and vast Rapsfelder which can be the most blindingly beautiful things.

I drove alone this morning, for the first time since moving to Germany. I am not afraid of many things, except angry German letters in the letterbox and, I guess, dying, but I was always afraid of driving here. I have never really had to, I have always lived pretty centrally and I am one of those people who loves public transport and the reading time it affords. I could still avoid it, we live near the train station, and the busses are regular, but as much as anything, it was time to stomp on that fear for once and for all.

So here we are, the fifth home I have had in this country; the roots are digging deeper, spreading. One set of neighbours has already given us the customary bread and salt and penny, and the BBQ has had its maiden voyage. A summer of settling in and strawberry picking and finding all the right little nooks for our boxes of stuff awaits. And perhaps reclaiming my sanity, although I can wait a little longer for that. Perhaps another twenty years or so.

Newness Knocking

April is out of control. Someone needs to have a word with her. Two days ago, it snowed, it really snowed. Big, fluffy, wet, cold flakes. Now, this is nothing new, and I know you are all saying ‘but Liv, April April, er macht was er will’ and I know but … come on. We are days away from May, and temps are under 5 degrees. Every second day, a black cloud screeches in, hovers over the city, and dumps a bellyful of rain and hail. Some days, the wind is so strong, I worry it will sweep me off the pavement (unless I am weighted by the stroller, the big baby in it, and the toddler riding on the attached kiddy board … then I am immovable). It feels like April is taking the piss a bit, to be honest.

Trotzdem, the sun gets a look in most days and, oddly, I find myself quite cheerful. Perhaps because in April I know that whatever Schietwetter the month wants to throw at me, it will soon end. It has to. One cannot be so cheerful in, say, January, because then one is looking down the barrel of February, March and April being utter rubbish. But just days away from May, I have faith the switch will flick and I can finally retire die Lüdde’s blasted snow suit that she has pretty much outgrown. (How? How has she outgrown a snowsuit that was swimming on her at the beginning of the season? Why must they grow so quickly?)

The apartment is a jumble of moxing boxes and empty shelves, and the new house a scene of non-stop work; pain-spattered plastic and partially-finished floors and invaluable friends donating their time and sharing in the excitement of it all. A new month, and with it, and a new era is knocking and it feels right.

The adventure continues.

 

Easter & the Common German

We tend to do our weekly shop on a Thursday afternoon. It is a pocket of time during which things generally aren’t too chaotic; the older citizens of Kiel aren’t out in as much force as they are on a Friday morning and the panic of a Saturday doesn’t hang thick in the air, as people buy three packets of oven-ready bread rolls to survive the shops being closed on a Sunday. There are the usual queue-jumpers, who bolt like startled deer from the back of the line when a new Kasse opens, but the bolters are simply part of the grocery shopping experience.

Last week, though, Thursday happened to be the day before Karfreitag, Good Friday. The day before a public holiday. The day before the shops are closed for a day. And I didn’t realise it, until I had finished scribbling quite a substantial shopping list, including but not limited to, 25kg of chocolate. Now, there is something that exists within the common German that I suppose could be described as an inner … pushiness. It is the same pushiness that gets them served first, that gets them on the train first, on the bus first, that gets them sole ownership of that tiny round table at the Christmas Markets that you and six other (non German) people have managed to civilly share for half an hour. On days before public holidays, this pushiness marries another trait to be found lurking in the common German, a type of ever-ready panic that they might run out of coffee cream while enjoying a Kaffee und Kuchen session over the long weekend. So what happens is this pushiness marries with the ever-present panic and, come the day before a long weekend, they stampede into the supermarkets and while they are there furiously stocking up on coffee and coffee cream, they throw in several packs of toilet paper and a bag of dirt from the Aldi weekly Angebote in case they want to do some gardening, and about three cartons of yoghurt pots. Their trolleys become perilously full, and they push them at a clip directly at other people who might have been, for example, debating over whether they need a jug that dispenses small amounts of pancake mixture with a no drip feature (it turns out, I did need a pancake mixture portioning jug and it revolutionised breakfast). Occasionally, a scuffle breaks out, as someone breathes down the neck of someone else who is heaving great buckets of ready-made potato salad into their trolley, and you hear a, ‘Hey! Was soll das?’ ring out, competing with the bell that the cashiers are desperately pushing to try and get a colleague to come and open up another line.

It is the most horrific experience.

But we got our 25kg of chocolate, and we breezed into the Easter long weekend with well-stocked cupboards and a repulsive amount of chocolate ostensibly for die Lüdde and family gifts, but really for me to eat on the couch at night because for some reason Easter chocolate tastes so much better than normal chocolate.

April is proving to be as temperamental and unpredictable as every year, but spring is fighting hard. The tulips have dropped in price, the strawberries are slowly popping up in the shops, the trees are green and the footpaths are once again lined with flowers. And the magnolias, the magnolias are just beautiful.

A little rain and hail can’t hide the fact that warmer days are on their way.

Moving

Where did March go? It slipped by in a rush of going back to work, and getting out into the sunshine, and succumbing to winter’s parting gifts of tedious, low grade viruses. And now here we are in April. April. We are careering towards Easter and after that it won’t be long until der Lüdde’s first birthday. But first, but first, another change looms, and if it isn’t the perfect season for change.

We’re moving. We found a little house with a little garden in a not-too-little village 12 minutes out of the city. Übergabe is fast approaching, and I have started packing, boxes stacked in our bedroom, completely in the way and a constant reminder of what we are lurching towards. I remember when we moved from Weiden to Kiel in 2014, thus ending a series of moves as we sought to find a city we would make ours, I said I never wanted to move again. We had been in Australia, where I had finished sorting out the last of my things I hadn’t yet shipped, and I was six months pregnant and the moving company were appalling and I figured I would rather stay put in this wonderful apartment for the rest of my life than ever lay eyes on another moving carton again.

But that was three years and two kids ago. The baby we brought home to this apartment in that hot summer of 2014 has long hair and longer legs and says things like ‘Mama on boat! Da oben!’. The baby we brought home to this apartment in the sunny spring of 2016 turns one soon and even though he may not think it, the little koala, he will love having his own room soon enough.

Of course, the usual nostalgia has crept in, wrapped itself around this apartment and this corner of the city I love. Of course, those pesky questions are bubbling around in the background; ‘but why change? Everything is fine! Keep living as you are you silly fool, why shake things up?’ Those questions, though, they bubble at the merest mention of change. I know them well, they have followed me around through countries and apartments and babies. They are the jerkiest of knees and they disappear the moment the new arrives. Besides, as much as I have loved the lifestyle living in the centre of a typical mid-sized German city (such a easy, car-less lifestyle) I know we have outgrown this apartment. And I want a garden, where I can grow herbs and flowers and release the kids without having to schlep them and all of their things down three flights of stairs and out to a playground. It will be so nice to stretch a little more, to barbecue out the back, to have those somewhat elusive of things here in Germany, a laundry room.

Ach ja, life continues apace. As much as I want to beg it to slow down, there is a time for that and it doesn’t seem to be my early thirties with two kids under 3. And that’s okay. I take the fleeting quiet moments for what they are – rare and lovely and just enough to keep the engine ticking.

For now, the boxes are waiting, the walls need a lick of paint, we completely forgot to make a Spermüll appointment in time and I have a Kellar to clear out.

The next chapter is here.

 

 

The Slow, Well-Lit Crawl

There isn’t much that is extreme about Kiel’s weather. It doesn’t get extremely hot during summer, nor extremely cold during winter. We don’t get extreme amounts of snow – although it does get extraordinarily windy, so there’s that. But what is rather novel, and a little closer than not to the ‘extreme’ end of the spectrum, is how much light we get here, during the warmer months.

As we begin the crawl towards midsummer, which always comes far too quickly for my liking, the days get longer and longer, the light hanging around until 10, 10.30, heck even 11. In the mornings, after months of making coffee in the pitch black, you suddenly find yourself ready to start the day at about 5 o’clock. At least, the birds do. (Ah, the birds. Have I told you they have come out and are singing these days? Magical. And the bulbs are bursting out too, daffodils and crocuses and Schneeglöckchen.)

As the days lengthen and the temps move like a drunk snail towards solid double digits (sliding forwards, slipping back, inching forwards once more), the urge to be outside as much as possible has taken over. It is almost compulsive. This is the time of year you actually bother to get out of the house before naptime. The hustle of boots and jackets and hats is worth it, because you will be outdoors for longer than a quick ten minute walk around the block.

On the weekend we were out for hours. Hours. Do you know what it feels like to be out for hours, after months of ducking in and out of heating, hands shoved in pockets, jumping up and down on the balls of your feet muttering ‘fuck it’s cold’ until it really is unbearable to spend a minute longer outside, and running back inside, where you have been all day slowly going mad? I shall tell you. It feels utterly rejuvenating. It feels well-earned and jubilant. It feels joyful, after months of staving off cabin fever with hot drinks and sweet treats and trips to Ikea instead of the park. It feels like the whole city has collectively exhaled.

We hit the Kieler Umschlag, we hit the park, the playground, the bakery for mini Spritzkuchen for breakfast. And just as well … because Monday brought with her a cruel wind and I found myself back at the playground jumping up and down on the balls of my feet muttering, ‘fuck it’s cold.’

 

Home Stretch (?)

Yesterday we awoke to the most glorious sunshine. It fizzed through the apartment and zipped into our moods like Tinkerbell on speed. We were all so bright. The morning flew by in a sun-drenched whirl of breakfast and snacks and games and repeated, penetrating requests for ‘BV’ and my heart soared at the notion of a lovely, long sunny walk in the afternoon.

LOL.

What actually happened was the clouds rolled in as I trotted to the bakery on the corner to get some Kuchen for a planned Kaffee und Kuchen with the kids’ Oma and Großtante. As I ordered two slices of Bienenstich and two Zitronentaler there was a muted roar outside and a belch of wind rushed down the street, blowing the bakery’s sign over. As I handed over my 5.10€, the snow came in a jittery rash, tiny little ice balls dancing all over the pavement, as if the clouds couldn’t even be bothered to summon actual snow.

Actual snow did, however, fall for a few minutes and as it did, I said to SG, ‘the sun will come out later.’ The sky grumbled a little longer, clearing its bowels of the last of the ice, and as we ate the last of the Kuchen, out the sun did indeed come. The blue returned. The apartment flooded with golden afternoon light. We rugged up and grabbed the Bobby Car and hit a Spielplatz and it was absolutely Arschkalt and bitingly windy.

But the Arschkalt-ness and the cruel wind didn’t matter. What mattered was, at least yesterday, the sun won. We are almost, sort of, just, possibly … on the home stretch.

Grey

There is the Sky Grey, the Street Grey and the Naked Branches Grey.

The Light Grey of Mid Mornings that dulls to Dark Afternoon Grey, a particularly heavy shade that warrants a hot drink and a lamp or candle on. Anything that makes you feel all hygge or gemütlich, anything that takes the focus off the fact another whole day has passed without sunlight.

There is Rain Grey (and within Rain Grey, there is It’s Pissing Down Grey and Only Drizzling Grey) and Puddle Grey and Fjord Reflecting the Sky Grey. Occasionally there is Slush Grey, and there is a particularly special, rather popular shade I like to call Rainy Sunday Grey.

There is Trendy Scandinavian Flooring Grey that you find in cafes with candles and flowers planted in the middle of the table. This grey blends effortlessly with General Surroundings Grey.

There is Fog Grey and Misty Morning Grey and Cloud Grey. Although Cloud Grey often gets lost in Sky Grey; one must really squint to discern the shades.

This is the sky.

There is Endless Autobahn Grey as you take to a roadtrip to break the cabin fever. Endless Autobahn is beautifully offset by Strange Gun Metal Grey Trees.

There is Seagull Grey and Pigeon Grey and Seagulls and Pigeons Splashing in Puddles Grey.

There is Face Grey, the colour we all go after being deprived of sunlight and vitamin D for months on end. And there is Mood Grey, the collective state of us as February drones on and on.

And on.

 

Peruvian Mangoes & Needle Rain

And so we have arrived, cold, pale-skinned and severely Vitamin D deprived, in my most hated month of the Northern Hemisphere year; February. Ooh she is a cruel mistress, February. And oh how I have so very often bemoaned her cold, grey ways. She does it to me every year, drives me up the walls of the apartment she forces us to hunker down in as the rain falls and the temperature hovers at a number germs and viruses thrive in, and all the way back down again. Every year. Every damn year.

Der Lüdde and I went out to the markets yesterday, for a coffee that was cold within minutes, and a stroll with a friend. The cold at the moment is wet, wet and biting, of course if you are a baby wrapped in a lamb’s wool-lined suit, that doesn’t really matter. Oh to be a baby wrapped in lamb’s wool and marvellously ignorant of Schietwetter. The markets this time of year are quieter, less colourful. Loads of pale,  knotty root veggies blinking in the light. That being said, in amongst the stalls of turnips and woodfired bread and tiny organic leeks, was a rainbow fruit stall, selling Peruvian mangoes for 6.50€ a piece. Quite apart from not being desperate enough  to pay 6.50€ for a single mango, yet, I have become accustomed to eating more seasonally, and the idea of a mango in February felt wrong. It seems a touch of the German sense of Ordnung has indeed got under my skin. (Now, the idea of a mango in February in Australia, well that is quite simply enormously right.) But, look, I have to say … I picked up a mango and smelled it, looking like a real loon, but it begged me to, with its sunset skin and sweet, sweet smell … maybe I am closer to paying 6.50€ for a Peruvian mango than I thought. This is what February in this part of the world does to you. Robs you of reason.

On the way home from picking die Lüdde up from her playgroup, the needle rain started and before long we were all dripping, cheeks red, eyelashes wet. Die Lüdde clung determinedly to a soggy rice cake, a gift from her little mate. The rain didn’t let up for most of the rest of the day, so we resigned ourselves to another day of puzzles and drawing and Kneate and fossicking around the apartment to find things we could turn into games (‘look, an old tin full of biros that may or may not work – why don’t you go through each and every one of them and test them out!’). This time of year is tricky with kids – it is too cold or too wet or too miserable to haunt a Spielplatz, or one of them is nursing just enough of a cough to not make standing in the damp cold for a few minutes of slippery dip fun quite worth it. So you build up craft boxes, grabbing glitter pens and sticker whenever you see them, dropping 12€ at Tiger on anything colourful that can be glued to paper. You crack out the puzzles you cleverly bought months back and put away for a rainy day (ie: the entire season of winter) and you read a lot of books. A lot. No wonder Germany is das Land der Dichter und Denker. The weather means one has not much else to do except sit inside and think and perhaps jot a poem or two down about how god awful the weather is and consequently, how dark one’s soul is.

Tja. February. You test me every time.

Erosion

As time passes and I find my answer to ‘seit wann sind Sie in Deutschland?’ changing to a number of years that seems heavy to me, a strange, uncomfortable thing is happening; I feel, sometimes, as if an erosion of my Australianess is taking place. It is slow and for the most part so incremental as to be almost unnoticeable, like the smallest leak in a very large bucket. But it is there, this sense of being washed away, this sense of, on difficult days, loss.

Loss, of course, occurs naturally with age. I have, rather unfortunately, lost the body I had as a 25 year old and lost the very blonde hair I had when I lived in a country with plenty of sun to help the sporadic dye jobs. I have lost the thirst, the uncertainty, the unending desire to prove oneself, that accompanies one throughout their twenties. I have lost patience for many things, interest in others. I have lost sleep, or rather, it has been stolen by the two little people I have gained in its place. None of that is bad. All of those things most probably would have occurred whether I had stayed in Australia or not (except the hair). But, alongside the things I am shedding as I grow older and further into my skin, are these intangible pieces of self, and they are disappearing not because I am growing older, but because of where I am growing older.

Recently, I went to the first English playgroup I have come across since having my first baby here two and a half years ago. I don’t seek out English-centred activities for my children, although I will as they get older and most of their days are spent speaking German with teachers and classmates. And I will always feel the need to defend doing English-centred activities with them because I heard these words so often when I first moved here, they hang around my neck like a chain; ‘you live in Germany now, you must speak German.’ And as immigrants, we are naturally defensive of passing on our culture and our language. Defensive and yet proud. Obstinate, irritatingly so, but only because we fear being lost in our children.

So there we were, a disparate bunch, a Kiwi who had married a Dutch woman who herself had grown up in Kiel. An American who had married a German, a German who had married an Englishman, a British-American born in Germany, raised in London, who had married a German and returned to the country of his birth, if not his citizenship and so on, so forth. Our kids had accents and mixed their vocabs and it was a warm and easy meeting of like minds. I was asked where I was from, and when I said, ‘Australia’, the response was one I hear often, but this time, this time it stuck with me; ‘oh, you can barely hear it.’

I know that accents often come and go, exist in a constant state of flux. They come back with a vengeance when you are with family and friends, they pop out when you are angry or excited. And they drift off when they haven’t heard themselves for a while, and you find yourself mirroring another person’s vowels, or over-annunciating some words to be better understood, or inserting quirks of the language you are learning, into your mother tongue. But your accent reveals your heritage, warns others of where you come from, singles you out in a roomful of people. And mine, albeit never particularly strong in the first place, is fading. So I try and hang onto the way we speak. I hated shortening words when I lived at home, words like ‘arvo’ for afternoon, but I say it all the time now. Almost deliberately. Definitely deliberately. For the same reason we have hung the paintings of Australian birds, bright and colourful and heart-warmingly distinct, around our apartment, my husband and I throw flat Aussie vowels at each other, use expressions I grew up hearing from my parents, and it helps.

My formative years, of course, indeed my first 25 years, were spent in the country of my birth and my citizenship. I grew up there, was educated there, voted there, worked there; I come from, I am. And yet, I have never rented an apartment in Australia. I have never had a baby there. I have never bought a house there. All three of those things, those so very adult, life-defining things, I have done here. There have been three Prime Ministers – I think –  since I left the only country in which I am legally allowed to vote.  I see what angers my people, and it angers me too. I celebrate our victories. I will always support the green and gold. But I do it all from afar, without the immediacy of being there, without the context of having been there as things take place. And of course, I lot of it passes me by. A lot of names, I don’t recognise, a lot of things happen and I come to them late; a lot of problem are not my own, or rather, they are my own but they are occurring in a different system, in another language.

Strangely, I do not feel like the slow erosion of my Australianness correlates with a deepening of my Germanness. I do not feel any more German than I did six years ago, freshly arrived and floundering. I understand the Germans and German far, far more. I love them and this country in a manner achievable only through being a part of it. But I do not feel a part of my cultural identity is German. I feel a part of my cultural identity is being foreign within Germany, but not German. And from where I stand, in a position of terrific privilege, I – even I – can see, how immigrants isolate. Isolate and insulate. Because as an immigrant, you are never not what you came from, but you are also never what where you are. This tension can be a wonderful thing. Fascinating and eternally educational. But it can also be disengaging, a slippery slope to disenchantment, an easy reason to cling to what you left behind in defiance of a culture you do not feel a part of.

And yet, and yet. There is another way of looking at this, for I also know that a part of me was always seeking something different, a tension, a suspension, otherwise I would never have left Australia. Otherwise I would not be sitting here, looking out on a cold, grey north German winter’s day, while my half German son gums a rattle on the floor. And that same part of me knows that there is another way of looking at this sense of erosion, this fear I am being painted over as life barrels on and further away from both what I knew and what I thought it would look like; rather than being taken away from, I am being added to. I have lost nothing, but instead gained abundantly.