I am not known for my willpower. Just ask the entire cake aisle of my local supermarket. We are well acquainted in a most intimate, excessive way. I also have the terrible, Aquarian habit, of starting things with the best intentions and then getting distracted halfway through and starting something else (case in point, at least 10 unfinished short stories and 4 novel manuscripts languishing in a file on my desktop). But I do love making plans, and there is something quite thrilling about setting a goal and working towards it (in the beginning, anyway). I also love lists and new leaves. All of which leaves me in the completely ordinary predicament of wanting to make resolutions but knowing, quite honestly, there’s a large chance that within 14 days, my resolve will have disappeared under a pile of paper. Or into a cake.
A couple of years ago, I came to a simple, obvious conclusion. It is always easier to do more rather than cut back. ‘Stop eating so much shit’* sounds so confining and bossy, whereas ‘eat more good things’ is encouraging and kind. It also deals with the tedious psychological issue of immediately not wanting to do something if you are told to do it. If I am told not to eat more shit, I will defiantly eat more shit, even if it is my own list of resolutions, penned by my own hand, telling me not to do it because it is in my own, self-acknowledged interests. If that same list says, ‘eat more!’ I will think to myself, ‘pffft, no, I won’t eat more.’ I am my own worst enemy.
One might suggest I avoid making any sort of resolutions altogether, but I feel far too shiny and new and resolute not to. So in the spirit of compromise, here is what I resolve to do more of in 2012:
Three books a month. And not just crime fiction. Preferably a touch more historical fiction.
Finish two of those scrappy manuscripts.
Finish at least three short stories.
Write more feature articles.
Watch More Films
At least two a week. I fell far, far too far behind in 2011 and spent far, far too long unaware of Melissa McCarthy’s excellent comic timing.
Make the most of Germany’s borders and, when I am home for December, see more of my own backyard. Like, for example, that reef the rest of the world bangs on about, but I have never seen.
My Mum gave me Neil Perry’s The Food I Love for Christmas. We will be getting a new kitchen in March. I need to expand my repertoire beyond Greek food and (excellent) Thai curries. All of this means I must … cook more.
And live more with this in mind …
* But I really must stop eating corn chips, Berliner donuts and wine gums. And on a totally unrelated note, I really must wear eye cream more often.
It has been a big year. I know it is customary to say that at the end of every year. To look back on 365 days gone by and give them a polish with a tired, satisfied sigh and a scrap of hindsight. But really, 2011 has been rather large. And hard. It has, I think, of all years, presented the tough with the sublime, like no year before it.
As a lister, I am inclined to list the big things of 2011, purely to get it all straight in my own head. And to remind myself to stop, take a deep breath and have a glass of wine before a new year bursts onto the scene. And when I say a glass of wine, I mean 4.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I had a few thoughts, driving down south last Friday afternoon.
1) “God, it’s getting dark early these days.”
2) “Why doesn’t the autobahn have streetlights?”
3) “So this is it. My soon-to-be surrounds. Rather hilly. And genuinely in the middle of nowhere.”
Come next year, I shall be moving. To the middle of nowhere. SG has been posted to this particular location for his job and, because I am more than ready for a new adventure and it makes all sorts of sense for this new adventure to include my reason for remaining in Germany, I will join him in a few months.
More information will be forthcoming, but for now, all you need to know is that this particular town is 30 minutes from the Czech border and its name translates to ‘pasture’. And the US army has a whole lot of soldiers there. Take a moment to conjure up whatever images you will. They’ll likely be fairly accurate.
Last weekend SG and I went down to our future home to suss out apartments and generally get acquainted with the area. Because he’s a typical German in many, many ways, SG had planned 7 appointments beginning at 8am on Saturday morning. He even had a spreadsheet. The previous evening we had driven from Cologne to Fürth (5 hours) and slept on a friend’s floor and the alarm had trilled that morning at 5.45am. It was therefore in the highest of spirits we crawled into the town of Wonders Too Numerous to Mention, under the cover of morning darkness, and availed ourselves of McDonalds’ breakfast menu. We joined 4 American soldiers in kicking off the day with a McMuffin and filter coffee. One of them burped loudly as he disposed of his garbage. SG sipped his coffee and said, ‘Oh, thank you America.’
The first apartment was opposite Burger King, Subway and a mattress outlet shop, down the road from McDonalds and 250 metres from SG’s future office. As we walked towards the front door, he said ‘I am not living that close to work.’ I said, ‘I am not living that close to so many fast food outlets.’ Everyone knows clumps of fast food restaurants = depressing.
The man who greeted us at the door and ushered us upstairs went by a peculiar name which translates relatively directly to Mr Booklet. With Mr Booklet, we entered the apartment and surprised the first of the (we estimated) 8 Polish tenants, who was in the process of sneaking, lightly clad, out of his bedroom and into the kitchen for a smoke. We said good morning and Mr Booklet promptly began the tour with the bathroom. Throughout the tour, I largely kept it together. There were the buddha and marijuana transparencies artfully decorating one bedroom’s walls. The ‘baby’s room’ sticker on bedroom 2’s door and the four steel frame beds crammed within it. There was the moment SG, desperate to do something to inch the tour toward completion, said he would just take a few photos of the rooms and walked in on one of the tenants in the bathroom. My composure was momentarily threatened by the prevalance of porn posters decorating one of the room’s walls – it was an excess of vagina for 8.30 in the morning and Mr Booklet and SG casually discussing measurements and paint-jobs with a labia hovering over Mr Booklet’s right shoulder was almost too much – and it essentially broke when Mr Booklet began talking to me. I could not understand a word he was saying. Not one. It is my belief he was actually speaking Japanese. I was ready for a different accent, but a different language? Do people from the south even speak German? Is the language one and the same? Is it? Would it hurt the to move their mouths? We bid the Polish workers farewell, thanked them for allowing our early intrusion and they returned to bed. Mr Booklet closed the tour by taking us outside to reveal the advertised balcony which will exist as soon as work begins on it in the near future.
Afterwards, we sat in the car in silence for a little while. Then SG quietly started the car and we drove off. We had time and the town is small, so we killed 4 minutes by checking out the addresses of our later appointments. It appeared the worst was over. We were mildly cheered by this and continued onto appointment 2.
It had everything. It was big, it was being completely renovated, it had an enormous living area and a husband and wife landlord couple whose combined dream was Australia (just Australia. As a country.) It even had a view of a rolling hill and the forrest.
Delirious with relief there were more accommodation options in this Town of Twenty, SG was ready to sign on the spot. I was concerned about the small kitchen (not because I feared my stellar cooking would be compromised, but because the kitchen is where everyone gravitates to and I couldn’t imagine having spirited discussions around the kettle in a shoebox) and the distance from the town centre – 5km out is fine when you’re in the hubbub of a big city with a railway system, it’s a rather nice balance. Not so when you don’t drive, don’t cycle and will need to walk to the main (and only) station everyday for work.
Promising SG we would accept this place if the four remaining appointments all went downhill, we moved on. Besides, we still had Apartment 6 to visit, pegged as the ‘Ideal Apartment’ based on the recommendations of a friend who had already seen it. We couldn’t leave without seeing the Ideal Apartment, we had spoken about it all week.
But then we met it. The Ultimate Apartment. In the centre of town. 5 minutes from the train station. Big. Renovated. Clean. Extremely well cared for. And with Santa Claus as a landlord. He came, fittingly bearing a gift of a 2012 planner, to inform us of the Bavarian public holidays in 2012. Thoughtful. He monologued, at length, about meat – schnitzel, wurst, saturday markets, the price of meat, the size of meat dishes available compared to those in Munich and whether those dishes were accompanied by pommes or not. He explained how he had made sure the shower was bigger than average when it was built because, as a larger man, he hates not being able to fit into standard sized hotel showers. He pointed out each and every power point. Buoyed by my overall affection for him, I felt confident enough to ask him a question in German and understood the first twenty words of his response, before I became lost again, in a sea of Bavarian (Japanese, honestly).
Burger King received our custom for lunch. The same one opposite the McDonalds we had breakfasted at. We weren’t proud. We were hungry and after getting stuck in a traffic jam and realising this modest town was where every single inhabitant from surrounding, even more modest villages came to spend their Saturdays and we were never going to find a park and get something to eat before our next appointment, we agreed BK was the best option. So did, as it turns out, many more of the aforementioned ‘surrounds inhabitants’, and it was in BK that I began to realise what it was that had been niggling at me all day. Aesthetically, the town to which I will move, seems to be stuck in the 90s. It’s like the millenium never happened. BK itself has this bizarre interior theme of American football, with huge, framed, faded posters of players in action and booths of a similar ilk to those I’d imagine the Wakefield twins slid into at the Dairy Burger.
We didn’t end up seeing the Ideal Apartment. We didn’t even make appointment 5. We went to number 4, glanced at it and walked back out. We were too distracted. Our hearts had already been captured. By Santa Claus. We didn’t need the Ideal when we had the Ultimate and so we called and cancelled the appointment to see the former and accepted the latter.
I may be moving to a town in the middle of nowhere, that looks and feels like it’s rocking 1996 as if it never ended, but at least I’ll have a big shower. And the schnitzels are cheap and come with large servings of pommes.
In the beginning, a lot of people asked me if I missed Australia. I always said no, because I didn’t. Simple. To be fair, I hadn’t been gone long and there were far more exciting things on the horizon to think about, rather than mull over what I had left behind. And Sydney was always going to be there, when I was ready to sail back to her shores. When I had had enough of Northern Europe’s atmospheric gloom, depth of history and convenient geographic structure, I would simply hop on the flying Kangaroo and fly back into the familiar warmth, into the vast space, the extraordinary colour of my home.
But now the game has changed. I’m staring down the barrel at staying in Germany much longer than I planned. The option of simply ‘going home’ has been taken off the table. It isn’t simple anymore. Possible, just like ‘anything’s possible’ but not simple. The freedom of movement, of spontaneous decision, has been sort of sacrificed for one of the greatest reasons to sacrifice anything; love. And I am fortunate enough to be in the position where love is the only thing I would sacrifice my home (for an extended period of time) for. I am not kept away from the lucky country by war, poverty or unrest. I shouldn’t complain, and I don’t think I am – but I am trying to readjust to a previously under-considered notion.
I was never so naive as to assume I wouldn’t make ties, put down roots that would be uncomfortable and sad to snip and pull up. But in my experience, of those you meet on adventures such as these, the ones you want to stay in touch with, the ones you want to see again, you will. I wasn’t worried about saying goodbye when the time finally came, there was nothing to worry about.
Then I went and fell in love. Not entirely surprising, not at all sought, but found. And, lo and behold, it’s different when love is involved! And it’s different again when only one of you has the freedom of movement in their job to whilst the other must stay put. Read: I can’t drag SG to Australia to begin a life of warm Christmases and beachside coffees and driving on the left side of the road, because his job simply doesn’t allow it. So someone must compromise and someone must sacrifice and of course, with anything, with all relationships, that is always going to be the name of the game. This is just on a slightly different scale than compromising on cars and where you want to have dinner. When relationships cross countries, that is an inescapable feature of that relationship. And it takes adjusting to – one must swivel around a bit, do some wriggling to get used to the feel of it. And sometimes that wriggling around stirs up a bit of dust, in my case vibrant red dust and soft yellow sand, and it gets in your eyes and you get a bit emotional and start mixing metaphors in your attempt to say you miss home. Really miss it.
I am having the adventure of a lifetime. And another one awaits (more on that later, when details are ironed out, superstition prevents me from making premature announcements). I moved to Europe for the precise experiences I am having – and then some. I just, in the back of my mind, always thought going home whenever I wanted to, would be the easiest part.
With plans having changed, with home having excused itself from the table for the forseeable future, I have started thinking about really staying here and all that is entails. Not just passing through for a year, then upping sticks and trying a new country. But staying here. And dare I posit, that’s why I am missing Australia on the gutwrenching level that I am. Because I can’t have her as easily as I could before. Because now there are consequences to going back to her. Because now and for however long it might be, I must give up home for love and that’s a different idea to the one I left with. Not a bad idea – not at all. It’s romantic and exciting and big. But it’s a new one.
I suppose, if I had to give a tagline to the movie poster for life as it currently is, it would be ‘she came for the adventure and stayed for love’. And then lurking in the background behind myself and SG in a romantic clinch would be the shadow of Australia, perhaps with a bratwurst curving around the east coast.
At the end of the day, as my Mum keeps saying, Australia is always going to be there. I know that. I just wish I didn’t miss her so damn much. And I wish I didn’t always want what I can’t always have. And I wish I didn’t always want those things now. Bloody instant gratification – I blame Gen Y.