Breathing Room

The time that I was hoping for has finally come. Germany, you don’t scare me any more. Your cold and sometimes judgmental glances on the streetcar don’t unnerve me or make me self-conscious any more. Your polite but reserved ways of relating don’t rub me wrong any more. Even your efforts to squash all of my German with your English can’t stir me nowadays. I don’t know what changed. I certainly did nothing but cross my arms and pout for the past three months, so I can’t credit myself. One day Germany or I or both relaxed, not completely but to that crucial point at which one can start to breathe, at which one knows it’s going to be okay. It reminds me of having my blood pressure taken: the cuff is so tight that I think I might lose my arm but suddenly a bit of pressure lets out, and I know it’s only going to get better from there. There’s something deeply satisfying about this moment of the first relaxed breath.  In the future I’ll look back on it and wrongly attribute it to my excellent coping skills, but for now I can see it for what it really is—a gift. It’s funny that it came right about the same time that I was granted residency here. Maybe I’m not such a foreigner after all now. I have a certain not-so-temporary status. Even if I am still very foreign, I don’t care. At least my foreignness doesn’t weigh so heavily upon me now. Germany is inhabitable now.

Culture, Self-discipline, The Poetry of Life

An Italian-German Speaks on Work and Worry

I had been driving myself crazy for the past month worrying that I wasn’t accomplishing enough while here in Germany. I had made game plan after game plan to try to make the most of my research experience while earning plenty of course credits to transfer back to Miami. I was worried about timing, about what people would think of my work ethic, about money. Then on Friday the guy who has been my kind of mentor in the lab for the past month, an Italian-German student in the final year of his Ph.D., stopped me and changed my whole experience here for the better. I had just come from this Molecular Biology class, which I hated and which was going to mean way too much study time, I feared. I had come into the lab and was sitting with my mentor as he contemplated whether to drink  his cold coffee from the day before when I decided to ask for his perspective. I said, “I’m in this Molecular Biology class, and it’s really complicated and detailed and I have to study a lot. It’s so boring. Will I really need to know this amount of detail in my field?” He replied that molecular biology is always useful and of course applicable to what we are doing and then asked, “How many days is it?” I answered, “Well, it’s a semester-long course. It’s every day for a semester.” “A whole semester!?!” he exclaimed. “No way should you do it!” I laughed uneasily, wondering how anyone would get through college on that stipulation alone. He went on, “I thought it was for a few days or something. You should definitely not do it. I will tell the boss if you do it and he’ll have you kicked out.” He laughed. I laughed too, relaxing a bit more. I explained, “I just feel like this whole year will be a waste if I don’t at least earn some credits and do some important research.” “You worry too much,” he answered. “The purpose of your year here should be to have fun and to travel. You’re looking at going to see some labs in Greece and France. I think this is good. Your focus should not be on finding the best labs; it should be on location. Do they have anything in Spain? You speak Spanish.” I laughed as the worry clouds started to clear from my head and my shoulders began to relax for the first time in weeks. He went on, “Do you guys really care so much about work in America or what?” I answered that we very much do. “Well you’re in Europe now,” he assured me, “so you should adapt to the mentality of Europe. Travel and try to relax. You have your whole life to worry in America if you want to.” He was right. I knew he was right. And after almost three months in Germany of stress, a light switched on thanks to him, and since then I have been happy.


Another Cooking Disaster: Palak Paneer

Not my palak paneer. This is from a real cooking blog:

There are so many lovely blogs out there about wholesome recipes gone well. They make cooking look like it comes as naturally to women as say, caring for a baby (also wrong). I’d like to take a different approach given that everything I cook turns out disgusting. There is something sensuous, I would like to argue, even in the dishes gone wrong. I enjoy spending time in the kitchen, which might be why I keep attempting these fruitless feats. My kitchen is warm because the afternoon sun comes through the big window. This is important in Germany, where it’s cold and the house isn’t heated most of the time. I can close the kitchen door while I’m cooking and trap the warm aromas inside (this is not so great when I’m chopping onions). Palak paneer is an Indian creamy spinach dish with cubes of mild, white cheese. The first step is to prepare a garlic-ginger paste. I bought garlic paste and ginger paste and then combined them in a vintage jar. There was something very satisfying about this simple task, and I felt like one of those homey food bloggers because of the expensive vintage jar (which is impractically held closed by four metal clasps). The smell of garlic-ginger paste is heavenly and enough to make you feel like you’ve cooked authentic Indian food even before you’ve begun cooking. Next I heated up some ghee, a kind of Indian butter, in a skillet. In case you’re wondering, yes, this meal cost me a small fortune at specialty markets. : ) Ghee has a sort of sweet smell to it, so when I added the cubes of paneer cheese and they started to brown, my kitchen was filled with a glorious foreign perfume. It was all down hill from there. Didn’t cook the onions long enough, so they ended up being crunchy. Added canned spinach, which had an overpowering taste of nothing that only tons of salt could remedy. I didn’t have a green chile–they don’t sell them here, of course–so I added a bit of Sriracha red chili sauce. It turned the dark spinach an even more depressing color of green. I served it over a basmati rice, which had been overcooked into a paste. It was disgusting. I made myself eat it for two whole meals. Then I threw the rest of it in the garbage dumpster outside while holding my breath so as not to gag. It was an expensive and time-consuming disaster. But for those few glorious hours before I tasted it, my kitchen smelled like an Indian food temple…I was a cooking goddess.



I’ve been sick for three days now, and in my boredom I’ve come up with the perfect system of relief. That’s right, I can’t even put aside my perfectionist ways when I’m sick! So this is it: Hot tea, chili sauce, wasabi. Without going into how good these foods are for your immune system, I can say that they make for a happy sick body (at least as happy as one can be). Hot tea moistens your lungs and makes you cough up all of that mucous. Chili sauce makes your nose run and makes you less congested. Wasabi really opens your sinuses (just be careful with the dose). I’ve never been so satisfied with myself in a state of illness. : )


Chronic Dissatisfaction

One of my favorite scenes from any movie (Vicky Christina Barcelona by Woody Allen) is what first introduced me to the idea of chronic dissatisfaction:

NARRATOR (V.O.): It was only Cristina, as the last days of summer expired, who began
to experience an old, familiar stirring…a growing restlessness that she dreaded, but recognized only too well.

NARRATOR (V.O.): Finally summoning her resolve, one
evening after dinner, she made an announcement that surprised everyone.
CRISTINA: I mean, I, I, I, I don’t want what Vicky has. I don’t want what my parents had. I don’t want what I had before I came here. I mean, I know that. But I, I, I know I can’t live like this forever.
MARIA ELENA: ¿Te lo dije o no te lo dije? (Did I tell you or not?)
JUAN ANTONIO: Vale, vale. (Okay, okay.)

Maria Elena leans against the counter and rubs her face agitatedly.

JUAN ANTONIO: What do you want, Cristina?
CRISTINA: I want something different.
CRISTINA: I’m, I-I-I don’t know. Not this.
JUAN ANTONIO: There is no answer, Cristina. There is no, there is no single answer.

Maria Elena turns toward Juan Antonio and gestures angrily at him.

MARIA ELENA: Juan Antonio, que no lo entiendes. Que ya ha conseguido lo que quería. Quiere otra cosa. Que esto ya no le basta. Es como una enfermedad, que nunca le va a bastar con nada. (Juan Antonio, don’t you understand, she’s gotten what she wanted. She wants something else. This isn’t enough for her. It’s like a sickness, that nothing is ever going to be enough for her.)
JUAN ANTONIO: Maria Elena, Maria Elena.
CRISTINA: Please…don’t get so upset. Please. And can you speak English? I can’t understand you.
JUAN ANTONIO: A ver, habla inglés, por favor.
MARIA ELENA: Nunca se va a conformar con nada, esta niña. (This girl will never be
satisfied with anything.)
JUAN ANTONIO: María Elena, habla inglés, para que te pueda entender. (Speak English so she can understand you.)
MARIA ELENA: Sabía que nos la ibas a jugar, sabía que nos la ibas a jugar y nos la has jugado. Cómo lo sabía! (I knew you would play us. I knew you would play us. And you played us. I knew it!)

Maria Elena slams her hand down on the counter.

JUAN ANTONIO: Ya, vale, vale…
MARIA ELENA: ¡Cómo lo sabía, cómo lo sabía! (I knew it! I knew it!)
JUAN ANTONIO: Ya. Maria Elena. Por fav– Speak English, please so she can understand it, all right? Ya.

Maria Elena sobs. Maria Elena wags her finger at Crisina.

MARIA ELENA (to Cristina): Chronic dissatisfaction. That’s what you have. Chronic dissatisfaction.
MARIA ELENA: Big sickness. Big sickness.
JUAN ANTONIO: Eh, no es eso, María Elena, no es eso. Es simplemente… Es simplemente…Mírame. (That’s not it, Maria Elena. That’s not it. It’s simply that… Look at me.)

Juan Antonio clasps Maria Elena by the chin.

JUAN ANTONIO: It’s simply that…

Maria Elena looks at Cristina.

MARIA ELENA (to Cristina): How can you…? Do you know how much we love you?
CRISTINA: Yeah. And I love you both.
MARIA ELENA: No, you don’t!
CRISTINA: Yes, I do.
MARIA ELENA: No, you don’t!
CRISTINA: It has nothing to do with that!
MARIA ELENA: Niña de mierda, niña de mierda. (You spoiled little shit.
Spoiled little shit.)

According to the OECD Better Life Index, Germans are less satisfied than Americans in the categories of housing, income, jobs, civic engagement, health (?!?), life satisfaction, and safety. Before coming here, I lumped Germans in my mind into a group of stress-free, satisfied Europeans, but I guess I was wrong to assume. I tend to suffer from chronic dissatisfaction due mostly to the many expectations I dream up in my head. But in the United States I’m used to running into several people during my day who appear to be satisfied, and that raises my mood quite a bit. Whether the Germans really are less satisfied (perhaps they have higher expectations) or are just more frank about their discontent, I’ve noticed that the people I see walking around every day don’t look as happy as people in the U.S.A. (“The land of so many societal ills!” How could this be?) I wonder if it’s because in the U.S.A. many believe that only a lucky few make it to the top and achieve happiness, so one might as well be happy with his current lot. Meanwhile here many believe that their quality of life is in their own hands. If this theory is true, then Germans are putting a lot of pressure on themselves (as are many chronically dissatisfied Americans like myself), and maybe we should all just calm down, look around, and see that life is not so bad right now…Any maybe smile sometimes. : )