Wehmütig

There is something about going back to a place that used to be home. It’s as if, by having called this place home, you are never a visitor but someone who has simply left for the time being. As if this place you once called home is still saving you a seat, whether or not you ever fill it again and regardless, should you fill it again, if it is for five years or five days. I suppose it is a case of once a home, always a home. You mark each other, a transfer occurs, like wet ink to skin or a thumb print to paper.

In an impulsive moment, brought on by the suggestion of my German parents, R&B, I went back to Münster last week. It was to coincide with my German brother’s birthday and saw him coming home from work to find me lounging on his couch with a glass of wine. It was payback, really, for this part in orchestrating my 26th and 27th birthday surprises with his girlfriend, my former (wonderful) flatmate, who seems to have an extraordinary knack for getting people across oceans and countries and into the same room for that one, heart pounding moment. It was also the last chance I had to get back to Münster before leaving Germany and seeing as Münster was where it all, really, began, it felt necessary to walk its stony streets once more.

And it was absolutely lovely to be back. Lovely and rushed and rainy. The city had saved me a seat and I slid back into it, having coffee with familiar faces, playing on the seesaw with Silke and the kids, dancing all night with people who made me feel so welcome way back in the beginning, drinking a wine in the corner of my favourite pub with two of my favourite women. Münster turned on its finest weather and produced four days of grey skies and drizzle. I didn’t wear my summer shoes once. Somehow, had I worn my summer shoes, it would have felt wrong. Münster and rain belong together. It is how I got to know the city and it is how I will always remember it.

The day before I left, I went to have tea and cake with R&B. B is three weeks from retiring and I asked him how he felt. His response was, ‘wehmütig.’ We translated it, after a lot of pontificating and hand gestures and ultimately Leo-consulting. Wistful was offered up, as was nostalgic and melancholy.  ‘Looking back,’ Bernd said, arms waving, ‘looking back and thinking.’ I asked if one eye was laughing and one was crying and he said yes and we decided he wasn’t really wistful or melancholy, he was more nostalgic. Nostalgic for the past, for his present that was weeks from slipping into the past, for the long, happy years he spent working in his castle.

The Germans have the word ‘nostalgisch’ as well, and ‘melancholisch’. But wehmütig seemed to differ, seemed to express far more in one word than the others. It sat with me, that word, through tea and cake and in the car on the way home, I asked my German brother about it. I wanted to know how it differed from the German ‘nostalgisch’ or ‘melancholisch’, what it really meant to be wehmütig. He gave me a beautiful explanation. He said, you have to pull it apart. Your ‘gemüt’ is your mind, your soul, your most basic, essential feeling. The one that sits deep within, that alerts you to both your wellness and any imbalance that may be disrupting it. Weh is woe or grief and also soreness, an ache. Children, he said, use ‘weh’ when they hurt themselves, when something is sore – ‘aua, es tut weh!’. So wehmütig is when your sense of wellness, your balance, that innate feeling within you, is hurting. When it is undergoing grief, when it is aching, perhaps, because of change or loss.

I thought about wehmütig all the way home. Hungover and at the mercy of the Deutsche Bahn’s endless delays, I watched the green, neat German countryside roll past my window. I thought about everyone in Münster, about driving out of it, months ago, SG at the wheel of our big moving truck and what that move did to my gemüt. I thought about it as I felt that change as my train headed south, that soft kick of familiarity as we hurtled past the red villages clustered around the lone church spires, as the hills began to swell. I thought about it as I sat waiting at Nürnberg, feeling closer to home, feeling more gemütlich. I thought about how leaving these hills soon is making me feel wehmütig, is making my gemüt ache, just like leaving Münster did, and Sydney before it.

And I thought about it as I lay in bed that night, pleasantly exhausted, relishing the feeling of being in my bed, in my home. I thought about how gemütlich – comfortable, appealing to my gemüt – I felt and my thoughts wandered to my bed in Sydney, to how it will feel to, exhausted from flying, crawl into it. And as I fell asleep, I thought about how Sydney is saving a seat for me, keeping it warm, ready to soothe my aching gemüt.

I thought about change, about nostalgia and how fortunate I am that the changes of the past that have imbalanced me have simultaneously produced the only antidotes to feelings of wehmütig; the people and places I will always call home.

Why Aren’t Germans Fat?

Back in Bavaria, after four days of fried fish, moorish soups , bread, cheese and, obviously, chocolate, I am forced to contemplate an issue that has haunted me since I first shoved a brie brötchen down my gullet many months ago. Why aren’t Germans fat? This is a question I give, at intervals, a great deal of thought to, not only because I managed to stack on 9kg (of which 7kg remains) when I moved here, but also because I am genuinely enamoured with – and have subsequently adopted – the German appetite and want to know how they eat what they do without being completely enormous. Remaining, in fact, quite the opposite. Strong, healthy and often quite lithe! Is it their metabolism, developed over thousands of years of eating particularly heavy foodstuffs? Is it their height? Does their general efficiency extend to their ability to process food?

Upon hearing the title of this post, SG exclaimed ‘but we are! We are the second fattest nation in Europe, after the Brits!’ I couldn’t believe it, and momentarily renamed the post ‘Why Aren’t Germans Fat(ter)?’ But some swift googling revealed Germany isn’t even in the top ten fattest nations in the developed world, and as of 2011 is only the 20th fattest nation in Europe. Put simply, Germany just isn’t in the fat club. It isn’t fat enough. And this boggles my mind.

Stumps of chocolate coated whipped marshmallow.

Why should Germans be fatter, you ask? Is it because I am horribly jealous of their long legs tucked neatly into knee high boots, of their invention and consumption of the Super Dickmann* (ridiculous in form and name) and little hip gold to show for it? Possibly. But also because the staples of German cuisine comprise what a lifetime of glossy magazines, celebrities, fad diets and shaky body image preyed upon by advertising, taught me are ‘bad foods’. And for a nation that lives on bad foods, they look pretty damn good.

After a lot of field work – and I am nothing if not thorough in my food field work –  I feel confident enough to be able to break down the staples of the German diet.

Wurst

Really, I don’t need to say much here. Never come between a German and their wurst. To them, wurst is not just processed meat and a bit of stray trotter all mashed up and packaged conveniently in stomach lining. To Germans, wurst is art. It is cultural identity (a friend of mine once famously assumed the German drinking toast was ‘wurst’ not ‘prost’ and so yelled it, confidently, whilst chinking his glass). It is life. There is nothing the Germans can’t make into wurst, there is nothing they won’t make into wurst. There is no form of wurst they won’t eat – big rolls of lunch meat, sausages in jars, in bread, on the grill, boiled in water, smothered in curry powder, in paste form, able to be squeezed out and spread onto brötchen.

I asked SG how many types of wurst he thought there were in Germany and, looking quietly thrilled to be consulted, said, ‘oh, I couldn’t say. There are so many, the possibilities are endless. You can have a wurst that is one kind and then add one or two different ingredients and you have a completely different wurst.’  He went on to discuss a few different examples (‘and this is just breakfast wurst!’) and closed with this audacious assessment; ‘there are possibly millions of types of wurst.’

Brot – Bread

Coming from a city of sushi, Thai and artful salads, and a skinny-love culture in which carbs are the devil in fragrant, floury disguise, the first thing I noticed upon moving here (when I visited here in 2007,  I was too busy drinking Jagermeister and trying to stay upright on a bicycle to notice much) was the deep, deep German love of bread. Bread is their thing, and rightfully so. German bread is absolutely wonderful. Never has there been such variety, such quality in the bread roll (brötchen) field. This is a country that eschews simple sliced bread (known, rather disdainfully, I feel, as ‘toast brot’) consigning it to quick breakfasts or emergencies only. Sliced bread doesn’t do bread justice. Toast doesn’t do breakfast justice. A loaf of sliced Wonder White? There’s the door. Get out. And wash your mouth out with soap as you leave.

Bread isn’t a dirty word in Germany. It is a celebrated dietry staple. There are more bakeries than people*, they are on every corner of every street. They are open on Sundays. Bakeries are where you go to ‘grab’ meals. Whereas once I grabbed sushi, now I grab a cheese stuffed, sunflower seed covered bread roll. And often something sweet like, for example, a Berliner. Because any round ball of sweetness, dusted in sugar and filled with jam should not ever be made to feel unwanted.

Käse – Cheese

It helps when you share a border with Holland and France, two deities in the cheese world, and Germany produces some rather delicious cheese itself. But wherever it comes from, cheese is plentiful, tasty, varied and cheap. It is also on every brötchen in every bakery (often baked onto the brötchen, resulting the imaginatively named Käsebrötchen) every breakfast table and woven into as many dishes on as many menus as possible.

Schweinefleisch – Pig meat

Germans worship at the altar of the pig. To be a pig in Germany is to be loved and eaten with equal gusto. It is to be completely unsafe from bib-wearing Germans, licking their chops and getting ready to carve you up and eat every little part of you with a side of potato dumpling. They will roast you, fry you, crumb you, mince you, wurst-ify you, bake you, take your knuckles and your elbows, schnitzel you, roll you, smother you in cheese and bake you again, spread you, raw and pink onto their breakfast brötchen.

Not just tasty, versatile and plentiful, pigs are also considered lucky critters and the Glücksschweinchen (little lucky pig) appears in many forms (often marsipan, because, you know, why not) throughout the country, most often around Christmas and New Years Eve. A touch of research leads me to believe this perhaps has something to do with it being lucky to be in possession of a pig during harder, hungrier times.

Kartoffel – Potato

Fried, baked, boiled, molded into dumplings, cut into pommes, layered into gratin, flattened into pancakes, smothered in bacon and cream moonlighting as a ‘salad’ in the north, mixed with oil and vinegar in the south. Like the pig, the potato has many uses and, like the pig, is a menu star. Unlike the pig, it isn’t lucky. Just starchy and filling.

Other frequently appearing foodstuffs worth noting:

Dairy

Yoghurt, quark, cream, ice cream, drinking yoghurt, milk, cold kakao milk, creamy meat and seafood ‘salads’ for the breakfast table, creamy salad dressings, creamy soups, Hollandaise sauce, the aforementioned cheese.

Chocolate/Schokolade

Biscuits/Kekse

Cake /Kuchen

BEER

So there you have it. The German diet, handily condensed. Now can you see why I spend so much time thinking about this? I do have my theories – I would be academically embarrassed if I didn’t, after all of this strenuous field work and analysis, but I would rather like to hear yours. Lack of refined sugar? Efficient metabolisms? An overall healthier attitude to food? (Bolded to denote my preference for this theory).

Hit me.

* The only sweet that has ever defeated me.

** Fake statistic.

Brötchen image

Metelen

On a Sunday that opened with sunshine, grew grey and grizzly then threw in a bit of snow and a lot of rain before closing with skies of blue and white, Silke and I drove to Metelen to see Cathy. Metelen is a small village very close to Holland and Cathy herself lives a mere stone’s throw from the border. This excites me. You all know how I feel about crossing borders. We ate homemade Nutella meringue cake, wildberry cheesecake and drank coffee with Cathy’s Australian Cattle Dog, Jack. Jack is amazing. He hails from the Blue Mountains. He is a little piece of home trotting about the German countryside. I did note his farm instincts have been blunted somewhat, but he is bilingual, so you can’t have everything.

On the way home, Silks and I pulled over to take a few shots of the wonderfully enigmatic landscape. Barely a soul passed us by as we stood snapping on the endless road.

The results?

Not a soul in sight.

Losing it.

I am beginning to go quite mad. It happened around this time last year, as well. I remember looking out my hotel window in Hamburg and realising it had snowed over night – albeit sparsely and for about five minutes – and feeling a wave of utter, crashing disappointment. The disappointment was followed by a flash of something like lunacy, which, as it happens, is one step up from pure, unbridled disappointment. I didn’t want to see snow anymore. I didn’t want to be cold anymore. I had been cold, at that point, for 5 months. My skin had not known sunlight for five months*. One can get rickets from not seeing sunlight for 5 months. I was sick of wearing a jacket, I was sick of wearing boots, I was sick of wearing a fucking scarf and I thought, surely, surely, it is coming to an end. Surely this is the point the sun comes out and everything warms up and people start smiling again and living outdoors, once more, becomes a possibility. And as I was thinking of this, as I was assuming this, I looked out the window and saw this. And started a low, grief stricken wail.

And so it has come to pass, that twelve months later, a similar level of madness is being approached. My flat mate arrived home at 7.30 tonight, to find me tucked up in bed, wearing my pyjamas, applying eye cream, for all the world as if I was about to bed down for the night. She gently mentioned my attire and indeed my locale and I said, ‘quite honestly, I have been in my pyjamas since 6pm.’ Why? Because it feels natural to shower and put on pyjamas when it is dark, or as good as, outside. Just like it feels natural to be in bed when it is chilly and pitch black outside one’s bedroom window. And in pyjamas (or variants of) and in bed embarrassingly early have I been, for months now. Because I don’t want to be anywhere else. Because there is no reason to want to be outside. There is no reason to be outside, unless one’s idea of a good time is to get rained on, be uncomfortably damp, shivery, red faced, sweaty beneath layers of thick, unbecoming garments and icy of extremities.

Listen to you, you may say, you sound like such a Negative Nelly.

This is what hours and hours of fucking darkness does to people. Pillages them of motivation, of energy, of desire, of, as the Germans say, lust, to do anything. Sucks them dry of their vitamin stores. Ravages their stashes of positivity. Depletes their stocks of dopamine. This is what day after day of low, grey skies, malevolently plump with the ever-present threat of rain, does to people. Drives them around the bend. Makes them go completely and utterly mad. Turns them into snarling, complaining, vile, stroppy beasts who see no light in the world, no fun.

I want to have bare feet and legs. I want to wear a dress. I want to not be cold when I get out of bed. 

I just want to feel warm again.

* This is a long time when you come from a country that really only has a winter that lasts 2 months. And it isn’t even that cold.

Walking a Little More Slowly.

My days of being a Nord-Rhine Westphalian are coming to an end. This limbo I am in, hovering between saying goodbye to one story and hello to another, is shortening with every lengthening day. As restless as I am, anxious to pack everything into boxes and install it within the four walls of the new place, I can’t help but feel this almost overwhelming sense of sentimentalism. Münster has been … well, enormous. It has known great love and rage and worry. It has known mistakes and little triumphs, hangovers, thick, white snow and unseasonably sticky Spring days. It has patiently given me all that it needed to, to fill the pages and colour everything in. Friendships with like minds, acceptance of what I have grown into and what I cannot and should not change. Work and thus colleagues and students who have educated me as richly as anyone or anything else could. Love. It has flung me in a direction I never really thought I would go in.

Münster in full bloom, during the Spring.

And so, with our days together slowly coming to an end, I have found myself trying to suck as much of Münster into my lungs as possible. The cold snap has brought with it high, blue skies and cool, pale sunshine, the perfect framework for enjoying the city’s old, blackened church spires and pointed red roofs. The canal and the Aasee have frozen over, and I see kids slipping and sliding or poking at the ice, when I look out the bus window on the way home from work. The walk to work passes by a tiny little stream that is completely white now and, some mornings, rabbits use it as an icy bridge, hopping from one grassy hill to another.

The canals have turned to ice now.

As often as possible, I visit Silke and Hanne and Ella and we eat biscuits and cake and play games, or drink tea on the couch. Hanne, with the customary authority of a six year old, reminds me of noun endings and articles and Ella enjoys every single baked good I bring. It is always warm and comfortable on Silke’s couch and few things remind me more of the importance and loveliness of good, true connections.

On Friday afternoon, I got off the bus a few stops early and went to the bookshop before meeting  a colleague and friend at the Krimphove, and old, creaky, cosy cafe of three levels. We drank cafe au lait and shot the breeze, two girls of the same age doing a very similar thing in the same German city. A comforting bond.

One of Münster’s millions of cafes.

Having Dee here, gave me reason to do things. We had tea overlooking the main shopping street, dinner at the Portugese restaurant opposite my place, went to a wine bar in Kuhviertl, ate giant schnitzels at Das Blau Haus and gorged on tapas at La Corrida. We revelled in it being -2 degrees and therefore officially ‘Dee’s Coldest Day Ever’. Three days later we shivered in Nürnberg at -20, a day that officially became the coldest day yet for both of us.

Best mushroom schnitzel in town? Das Blau Haus.
Tapas platter for two at La Corrida.

Wine Time, always celebrated in our apartment, has taken on a nostalgic tinge now. This weekend, my flatmate and I extended Wine Time – usually a couple of hours in the kitchen talking, per week, her with a bottle of white, me with red – over Friday and Saturday night. Saturday night careered from conversation to story telling to makeshift chicken enchiladas and somehow evolved into a personal jam session which itself ended with a two hour dance off. It was hugely necessary. How often does one get to crump in one’s kitchen, wearing flannel pyjamas, with a kindred spirit? Not often enough.

Wine Time

I live, and have been in living, in a truly beautiful part of the world, one different in so many ways to what I grew up with and what I am used to. And I will leave it soon, for another town, different again in many ways. With 19 days to go, I suppose what I am really doing is walking a little more slowly. Taking as much of it in before it stops being my daily surroundings and starts being fodder for ‘I used to live in this city …’ conversations. Really looking out the bus window and noticing things I haven’t before. Like, for example, the recent reconstruction work on Münster’s glorious cathedral, St Paulus Dom, has finished. Looking at the thousands of little flags that have been strung up over Prinzipalmarkt for Rosenmontag. I want to visit the big food markets that cover the Domplatz every Wednesday and Saturday, one more time. I want to have one more freezing walk around the Aasee.

The beautiful Dom.

And of course, with 19 days to go, I want just one more night at the local, a pub that really has, over the past 15 months, seen it all. And will, most likely, see the last big night of them all.

The local.

Image credit for St Paulus Dom. 

27 – Surprisingly Fantastic

The night before my 27th birthday, a funny little feeling that something was up began to niggle. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something in the air.  Walking home from an impromptu post-work German session with Silke, I idly looked for SG’S car, wondering if the niggling feeling something was up, was him coming up from Bavaria to surprise me for my birthday (who would have thought it, there is a romantic in me). No car behind our apartment building, but a light on in my bedroom. The niggling increased when I rounded the corner and found my flatmate standing outside our building, looking up at the kitchen window. I asked her what she was doing and she said her boyfriend had bumped into someone’s car whilst parking and then bolted up the stairs ahead of me, clattering about, talking loudly. Said boyfriend was standing in our apartment looking suitably annoyed and holding his phone and my bedroom light was no longer on. I looked at both of them warily and proceeded to my, now dark, bedroom.

In my dark bedroom, I spied a strange bag in my room. It looked vaguely familiar and atop it sat an English book that wasn’t mine. And, the classic giveaway, my bed had been made. I asked my bedroom walls why my bed was made and then I asked my flatmate, who was hovering in my doorway, whose bag was in my room and she said, ‘oh it belongs to a friend of mine who just arrived …’ and as she said this, she performed a sort of dance move and drew back to reveal … one of my best friends from back home, arms outstretched, yelling, naturally, ‘surprise!’

Now, I am a terrible person to surprise. I discovered this last year when my flatmate pulled the first of her Extreme Stealth Surprises by helping Tammy conspire to fly into Münster from Dublin and surprise me in my local pub for my 26th birthday. Far from shrieking, Hollywood style, and leaping into Tammy’s arms, so we could both jump up and down together, I went bright red and sat there like a stoned toad, mouth agape, eyes flooding, whimpering, ‘what are you doing here?’ Eventually Tammy had to say, ‘can you at least act like you know me so people stop thinking I am a major creep.’ It’s not that I wasn’t thrilled – it was that I was too thrilled and obviously, when I am that level of thrilled, disbelief takes over and I can’t move.

When Dee, who I haven’t seen for nearly twenty months, ran into my bedroom, despite my subconscious niggling, despite knowing something was brewing, I had what could have constituted a minor heart attack. I knew something was up – but Dee flying in from Sydney? I sat down. I stood back up. I went bright red. My breathing went funny. I whimpered. I screeched. It was completely, again, un-Hollywood and mildly scary and Dee had to ask me, genuinely, if I was alright. I was. I was just too thrilled to speak.  I was blindsided. Flabbergasted. And completely overcome by the sheer amount of love, kindness and generosity it takes to plan a surprise visit of that size, by those on both sides of the globe.

Subsequently (despite coming down with a beastly flu type thing in the middle of  my birthday dinner and losing my voice) Dee and I talked rapid-fire for three days straight over kettles of tea and bottles of wine. We skipped through Münster, drank tea and ate cake in one of the city’s sweetest cafes, drank wine at a window seat in a wine bar in Kuhviertl, ate schnitzel at Das Blau Haus and picked over every single detail of the past twenty months we have been living on opposite sides of the world. And then, because it was Friday and because enough red wine had not yet been consumed and there were still moments to dissect and stories to tell, my flatmate suggested we convene at a local haunt for a glass of wine. A couch was found, wine was poured and we got down to business, picking and pulling at stories we had each hitherto only read about in emails.

Halfway through our second glasses, my flatmate’s boyfriend walked in and behind him, casually, SG. SG who, for the past six weeks had been telling me he had to work on the weekend of my birthday party. SG who, once Dee’s plans were cemented, joined forces with the other three conspirators and hatched Surprise #2, the surprise that, after 2 months of planning (them) and 2 months of being blissfully unaware, (me) drew us all together – the best friend over from Sydney, the boyfriend up from Bavaria and my beaming flatmate and her beaming boyfriend. And me, the luckiest girl in the world. And that, dear readers, was how I turned 27.

Image credit

How Hard Can It Be?

When I started teaching English as a second language, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know whether I would be pointing at a plant and saying ‘green’, pointing at my smiling face and saying ‘happy!’ or repeating ‘hello, goodbye’ over and over again. I did think to myself, ‘how hard can it be … teaching people my own language?’, but beyond that, I didn’t really think of how things would proceed. I ignored the more obvious questions of, ‘I can speak my native language, but can I teach it?’ and ‘where does one actually begin when teaching a language?’ and jumped in. In hindsight, not knowing how little I knew was probably a good thing. Had I known how little I knew – in the beginning – and how often I had had to completely fake it, I may never have jumped with such gay abandon. I may have been far too tentative and far too nervous and the students would have smelt it, like sharks smell blood, and eaten me alive.

You see in some cases, and in some countries, teaching English may well involve 2 hours of teaching kids how to count, or a few hours of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘I would like a coffee.’ But not here. Here, people start learning English at school. By the time they have finished, they have been learning English in a school environment for ten years. Most of them know the grammar, many of them better than English speakers themselves. (I shudder to think of what teaching English in the Netherlands or Scandinavia, where they don’t dub film or television and where the people speak near perfect, accent-less English is like.) Most of them don’t really want to know how to order a coffee, they want to know more. They want to perfect their grammar and move onwards and upwards towards total fluency. Or even worse … they are totally fluent and want to get even better. They want to speak like native speakers.

To be a language teacher means you really have to get inside your own language and know it inside out. It is to be intensely familiar, on a whole new level, with your mother tongue. Your grammar has to be perfect, or close to, all the time because your students are going to write down and repeat what you say, or catch you out, or prove you wrong, or double and triple check to see if you are absolutely sure that is the only preposition you can use in that sentence. Sure, as native speakers, we should all know the basics – although many of us don’t, including those with journalism degrees writing for daily nationals – but knowing the basics isn’t enough. You need to know the answer and you need to know why it is as it is, or why, out of several possibilities, the answer you are giving them is the best possible one. Why this tense now and not that one? Why this preposition here, but in an almost identical situation, that one? Why should I put this word in this position in the sentence, and not in that one? Why can’t I say this? Am I wrong, or is it just not ideal? What makes it less ideal than your suggestion? Are you sure?

Beyond the complicated, bendable, nit-picky, sometimes bizarre grammatical basics of the fluid, flexible (and fantastic) English language, there are other things you will be called upon to do as a language teacher. You may have to help bankers understand legal documents; write a speech for a company’s CEO; teach suits the terms and systems specific to the business world; teach civil servants the language, terms and processes specific to the sector of the government they work for; make people aware of cultural differences and how to deal with them in different situations; teach pronunciation in the ‘how now brown cow’ kind of way; prepare students for university entrance examinations that consist of data analysis and essays. Often you must maintain the energy necessary to keep one single class interested and informed for 5 hours straight, or coax someone to speak, as grammatically correctly and as clearly as they can, for 90 minutes.

To be a language teacher is also to be something of a trivia vessel. You have to know a lot about stuff (or at least hoard facts as you go along). Stuff about your own culture, stuff about places you have been to, stuff about literature they studied in high school, films they have seen, songs they have heard, historical moments they are curious about. Not only because, quite often, you need to encourage people to speak by speaking yourself, but also because when it comes to one culture’s curiosity about another, people ask the strangest things. And then, of course, they almost always ask ‘why?’

And finally, to be an Australian language teacher – or indeed to be an Australian anywhere in the world – is to be constantly asked if you have eaten, ridden, seen, touched or owned a kangaroo.

Fucking kangaroos. And yes, I do teach my students how to swear. Sometimes. And only in a grammatically correct and socially appropriate manner. It is a valuable English language skill.

 

Image credit

 

Break on through …

When it became apparent I wouldn’t be making it home for Christmas, I was quietly devastated. I cried like a baby for at least a week straight and then every time I saw a woman who remotely resembled my mother (ie was female) for a good month after that.  I assure you, my behaviour surprised myself. I am usually a relatively positive person, it was my choice entirely to move to Europe, no one forced me, and I love it here. And it wasn’t as if I was going to be spending Christmas with a woven basket at my feet and rubbing my hands above a lit trash can. I was going to be surrounded by loved ones, fed excellent food and had the warm busom of not one but three families to nuzzle into. Plus, there was the man himself, the one and only SG. What was my problem? Get a grip, Olivia, I hear you all saying. I suppose, really, I just wanted to go home for a bit, see my Mum and Dad, stick my feet in the water and snuggle with my dog. It was as simple as that.

Weihnachtsmarkt in Münster

I felt sorry for myself for quite some time. Spent a little while martyring. And slung some vitriol at the weather, to lift my spirits. But then, inevitably, the sleigh bells started ringing. The Christmas markets popped up in the city and the much dreaded snow never came. The world’s best Advent calendar was strung up on my wall and St Nicholas struck on December 6th, with boatloads of chocolate. The gluhwein began to flow. Judy Garland’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas was popped on repeat and I started Christmas shopping. Faced with a list of presents to buy was like being told in a gentle yet deservedly firm manner, ‘look at the people you have here who love you and who you love.’ It was breakthrough number one; the warming realisation that, as much as I will always call Australia home, I also have a home here, one I have built, one where I belong. And one I must remember to treasure.

If Christmas is good for anything, it is heightening sentimentalism and yesterday afternoon, I had the second breakthrough. I was around at Silke’s, wrapping presents and assaulting her ears with my lusty carol singing, when I spied two little red squirrels chasing each other around a tree, scampering about without a care in the world. Bear with me, I am not making this up. As I stood with a truly wonderful friend, drinking coffee and watching squirrels frolic, the Christmas medley from Hanson’s under-appreciated album, Snowed In, came on the radio. My little heart exploded with festive spirit. Nothing spells Christmas for me, like a three-part male, adolescent harmony.

On the walk home, my fluctuating, Christmas-spiked emotions struck again and  I made the mistake of thinking about Mum, which is like my method acting trick if I ever need tears on cue. I just have to think of the words – not even verbalise them –  ‘I miss my Mum’ and the tears flow like I’ve rubbed my sockets with raw onion. Quite amazing. But just as I was glancing skyward – a trick I perfected during blood tests to stave off the tears, because needles also make me cry – my phone rang. It was my German Mum, calling to say that she and my German Dad were coming  around to see me. What timing. What delightful timing.

Sitting in our tiny kitchen with tea and biscuits and my German parents, people who have loved and cared for me as if I am one of their own, was the final breakthrough. I am now through to the other side. I am knee deep in Christmas spirit. I am thrilled to be here. I am hand-rubbingly excited about spending Christmas with SG and his family. I may not be in Australia, I may be away from my beloved friends and family – people I will always miss – my Christmas may be devoid of Pa’s pavlova, Nana’s Christmas cake and the sheer noise of my extended family but that’s okay. Because my breakthroughs, however small and however saccharine, have delivered to me one simple conclusion; that I shouldn’t think of what I don’t have, but what I do. That it is better not just to miss those on the other side of the world, but to make room to appreciate the people I have here. Because, and this is the final and most lovely fact – I am lucky enough, so very lucky, to have two homes and all of the comfort, warmth and love they bring. And that will always make for a very Merry Christmas, wherever I happen to be.

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Progress

I think I am slowly getting the hang of this cold Christmas caper. I am not saying I’m converted, I’m just saying I can live with it. If I have to. After last year’s intensive course in European winters, I vowed I would never go through one again. And yet, hilariously, here I am. Every morning, as I trundle to work at 6.30am, in the pitch black, fresh, icy rain tightening my pores, I think to myself, ‘isn’t this an experience! Isn’t this fun! Isn’t it wonderful to see how Northern Hemispherers live! Aren’t you a lucky girl!’ These thoughts usually descend at around 9.15am, when a glance out the window reveals jack all has changed since 7am and it’s entirely possible the sun actually never rose at all. But I don’t let them descend too far. Instead, I veer off down the ‘isn’t this cosy! Isn’t this just like all those English rom coms you have seen over the years!’ path.  You may wonder why I didn’t employ such forced enthusiasm last year. This is because last year, when I trundled to work every morning in the pitch black at 7am, I was concentrating on not falling on my cheese-padded arse in front of everyone at the bus stop and when I wasn’t doing that, I was saying to myself, ‘this is shit, this is shit, this is shit.’

To be fair, this year has been a little kinder. Nature has backed off a little and allowed me and winter some breathing space. Some time to get to know each other a little better. It is mid-December and it has only ‘snowed’ twice and both times for 5 minutes. It hasn’t rained that much (for Germany’s Rain Capital) and most days have remained above 5 degrees. Some have even snuck up to 9. There isn’t any ice on the streets and the nights aren’t so cold one’s nose detaches from one’s face. All in all, this has been a bearable start to winter. Debbie Downers may, at this point, mention that winter hasn’t technically started, that it starts on December 21st. Whatever. The weather has dropped below 10 degrees and it’s pretty much dark by 4.30pm. That, by my standards, is winter. End of.

There are several coping mechanisms I have employed – apart from repeatedly ordering boots and jackets on H&M online – to retain my sanity, embrace this icy beast and see the positives in spending another 4 months wearing half my wardrobe at once. The main one is to pretend I am in a movie, namely one set in NYC or London. One in which the women wear amazing knitted hats from which tonged waves of hair protrude,  and cup mugs of coffee or cocoa whenever possible. One in which menacing grey skies and rain seem romantic and whimsical. I have also taken to you-tubing some classic Christmas carols and reminding myself, whilst lustily singing along, ‘you are experiencing what they’re talking about’ … as a child, the lyrics of White Christmas fell somewhat on deaf, sunburned ears. And then, of course, the final coping mechanism, the food. The sheer abundance of chocolates, cakes, biscuits, lollies and nuts; the raclett; the impending Christmas fondue. It helps, it always helps. As does the advent calendar hanging on my wall, which yields something delicious everyday.

Of course, this optimism will last up until the first true snowfall, at which point all I have been repressing will surface in a wild moment of likely reckless abandon. But, and this is important to remember, when all else fails, there’s always the gluhwein.

Bist du blind?

The other morning my flatmate and her boyfriend were in the kitchen laughing like drains. So much so, that I went in to see what was going on. Dildo pool as it turns out. The TV show they were watching was replaying a 90s game show that set up celebrities by asking them to partake in unusual games and challenges. One of those challenges was playing pool whilst wearing a dildo, with the dildo, obviously, as a cue.

Hold that image for a second and allow me to take you back to a cold, dark night a couple of weeks ago.

I was walking home from work and came to a one way street with a crossing at which the walking man was red. I looked both ways, despite it being a one way street – I am just a careful jay-walker – and noting that, short of walking on my hands across the street, I was going to make it across the 3 metre crossing at least 3 whole minutes before a car made it to me, I crossed.

On the other side, a man stared at me as if I was casually skinning a squirrel and, as I passed, hissed, ‘bist du blind?

I raged the whole way home. The whole way. Am I blind? No, you gnarled old fuckwit, I am not blind, but I’m not going to stand on the side of the road for 5 minutes in the freezing cold twiddling my ice-block thumbs whilst waiting for the green man, when there is genuinely no traffic in a 2 km radius. It is my decision to do something so daring as to nip across a 3m side street and I am making it with my eyes wide open. Bist du ein dickhead?

Clearly, when I barged in the front door at home, I had a meltdown and boomed at SG, ‘I am so sick of being disapproved of when I break a rule, what is wrong with you people?’

I’m not sure if I have mentioned it before, or if the above makes it clear, but Münsteranians (and I suspect, based on SG’s behaviour, many other Germans) don’t jaywalk.  Oh you will see the occasional daring citizen leg it across an empty street, but they will be judged. By God. Who has long been fattened and feted by the German church tax. For me, jaywalking is a logical action if the circumstances are fitting. I’m not saying I do some Sydney-style running at slow moving vehicles and then spring bokking across their path, but I do cross the road if there is no oncoming traffic and it is perfectly safe to do so.

Anyway. Hold the image of me raging and allow me to tell you this little tale.

A friend of mine the other day was pulled over by a policeman and fined for riding his bike on a cobbled street before 4pm. Think about that.

Sometimes, Germans are so relaxed, so laidback, so ‘leave-it-to-mature-decision-and-discretion, we’re-all-adults-here’, it’s quite marvellous. Sixteen year olds can buy beer and wine.  There’s the autobahn that, for large stretches, has no speed limit. On game shows, if the contestent is a nude lads mag’s model, then it is no problem to flash through her, seemingly, entire portfolio on screen, as she jogs into shot. On prime-time variety shows, it is no problem to prance about in a dirndl and moon visiting celebrities (Jessica Biels’s face was funny). On that same game show, it’s no problem to host genuinely insane stunts that can and have put people in wheelchairs.

This is the same country in which you can get fined for giving someone the rude finger whilst driving. Oh sure, slip on a pair of kangaroo boots and try and jump across some ungodly stretch of cars, in the name of Saturday night entertainment, but don’t give a driver the rude finger!

Sometimes, when they’re not getting naked, drinking beer and enjoying a game of dildo pool, they are such sticklers for the rules it makes me want to scream and start breaking every single one I can. I want to ride a bike on cobbled streets repeatedly for the entire hour of 3-4pm whilst giving everyone the rude finger and swearing in people’s faces (fineable offence as well, apparently) and then I want to just go and stand in the middle of a road, point to the red man and shriek ‘you did this to me Germany.’

The great thing is, I would probably receive the utmost psychiatric care. My compulsory insurance premium’s high enough.

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