I returned from Australia a few days ago, and I was dreading the wall of disappointment that would hit me as I came back to this rainy, cold place. Contrary to my fears, nothing floored me. Everything was just as I had remembered it to be and not one bit worse. When I stepped up to the line at Border Control, I knew just what the officer would ask me and I knew just what to respond. I knew where to go to catch a train and that it would come exactly on time so there was no sense in running to catch one on the off chance that it hadn’t left yet. I knew that it would be raining once I got to Heidelberg and that the bus that goes to my somewhat rural suburb would take ages to come, so I would have to catch a taxi. I had the 10 Euro waiting in my wallet. It was 9.90. There was something comforting and yet extremely boring about it all…hence my love-hate relationship with Germany. When I went into the lab the next day, though, I was hit with something unexpected. The Ph.D. student who has mentored me since late September said, “How was Australia? The experiments are all done, and I’ll start writing next week. What will you be doing now?” And since then I’ve been in a state of panic over expectations and what I should do with the rest of my time here (8 months). The problem is that no one really cares what I’m doing here, as long as I’m confident about its merit. That means that there is some sort of expectation from these higher-ups that I do something great, but the guidelines about what exactly I should be producing aren’t clear. I went into science to do something of significance, to have clear expectations and very little oversight, not the other way around! What is the point of having all of this supervision, as I flop about on my own gasping for some clear route of action? And of course there’s a deeper, darker question that lies at the core of all of this: What am I even doing here anyway? Oh, I’d better pick myself up and run quickly away from that question, because in that question lies the potential of not just anxiety but of frustration and great disappointment. So I’m diverting my attention for now. There are many things in Germany, after all, that are comfortingly certain. Right now is the time of Christmas markets, where lots of hearty and sugary things will be for sale. I know the restaurants and cafes where I can duck in and eat a decent meal, pretending that I’m just here on vacation and my actual role doesn’t matter. I know that for at least the next month no one will ask me (I’m crossing my fingers) what I’m actually doing here because there are too many distractions with Christmas and shopping and family and mirth. It’s just when all of that blows over and I’ll swipe my card, take my lab coat from the hook and wear it around the empty lab with the machines humming, half of all the Ph.D. students having finished and left, that someone will spot me and ask, “What are you actually doing?” But for now I’ll let Christmas distract me and others from all of my struggles to find purpose. I suppose that is kind of the Christmas spirit: let’s set aside the expectations of reality for these brief moments and celebrate humanity.
Something about a drizzly day in Heidelberg and this dish just go together beautifully. It’s been a wet autumn for this region, which has put a damper on normal cheerful autumn activities like sitting in Biergartens wearing light jackets drinking in the company of friends under crisp yellow, orange, and red canopies. This is what I’ve been told autumn here is normally like, and it’s what I had pictured before coming to Germany. Walking in the rain is not always so idyllic, but it does make the cobblestones glisten, the stone cathedral reverberating in chorus all the more inviting, the cafés all the cozier, and Nürnberger Rostbratwürste (pictured above) so deeply satisfying. It was the only thing I ate so far today, and out of reverence I almost don’t want to eat anything else. Not pictured here (because the image would be too strong for some viewers) are the mashed potatoes that also formed the bed for these juicy, sizzling sausages. The rain may come as a disappointment for many Heidelbergers, but for me it’s only served to heighten my senses.
I’ve been feeling very home-sick lately, maybe because of all of the election news and because the holidays are coming up soon. Everyone in the United States is going through similar things: Halloween, election, Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukkah…knowing that I’m missing out is frustrating and lonely. This morning I reached an all-time low since I’ve been here and decided I needed to do something differently. So I went to Starbucks and ordered a grande chai tea latte. Then I went to the Hair Shop and looked at shampoos, and I found the brand that I use at home. Something about these two events made me feel better. Something about ordering the drink I like at a known establishment with comforting aromas instead of drinking coffee at the school cafeteria and something about finding the shampoo I like instead of using some harsh shampoo of an unknown brand from the Drogerie Markt was comforting. Was it just the consumerism that did it? Some would argue that purchasing anything provides a temporary high. I’d like to think not. For instance, the other day when I spent 7 Euros on a “döner teller”, a giant platter of meat, lettuce, and french fries, because the guy at the döner kebab place refused to make me a “döner” without bread (Me: “But I’m allergic to wheat. Can you just put it on a plate?” Guy: “We don’t have that”), there was no high. And when the stern worker at the Photo Shop told me that printing wallet-sized photos was not possible unless I wanted to pay 1 Euro each to make passport photos, it was not an upper. I think that today’s satisfaction had more to do with consumer choice. Consumer choice is empowering; lack of it makes one feel doomed to accept whatever is in supply. Hmm….doom is a good description of what I’ve felt lately. Consumer choice is (I know anti-consumerists are cringing) a form of self-care, because let’s face it, some products are better or better-suited to one’s needs than others. I’m a brunette, but using John Frieda’s Brilliant Brunette leaves my hair far from brilliant. My hair is screaming for a gentler, moisturizing shampoo. And now that I found one, compared it to the other shampoo, compared the costs, and made a decision; I feel like I’ve done myself a favor. It’s like going to the butcher and the baker and the farmers’ market to hand-pick each of your foods instead of buying them at the local grocery chain. The effort it takes to make the right choice fosters a sense of self-respect and self-love. Why is this important for me now? Because I feel limited, limited to cafeteria food and a few restaurants that use spices, limited to the few people I know here, limited to my room on these cold, dark, rainy evenings. But having a choice in what I buy for myself–even if it’s just whole milk in my chai tea latte–makes me feel not so limited and a little closer to home.