Once my coworkers found out I’m from Kansas City, this song has played every day in the lab. They remembered it from 1974, which means that this song basically defines what a whole generation of Germans believes about Kansas City. Sigh.
Something that I’ve noticed about Germans is that they love breaks. Breaks are necessary, deserved, and valued as an everyday part of life here. The American workplace worships productivity, and while the Germans are famous for their efficiency and productivity too, showing up at a German lab and hoping to win everyone over with your amazing work ethic won’t get you very far. Who you are to everyone else is all about what happens in the breaks. Morning lab meetings are seen as a break, even though they’re not much fun. They qualify as breaks because while someone is presenting, everyone else is passing around various homemade cakes and pretzels and spreads. Bring the appropriate item (Nutella is always a win) and you’ll be highly esteemed by your coworkers. Bring nothing at all, and people will ask you even as the room fills and you bring up your Powerpoint presentation on the screen, “Are we having a meeting today?” That means you screwed up. Lunch is the ultimate break. Calls for lunch–“Essen?”–begin almost an hour beforehand, and your response better be definite. Are you in this or are you out? Promises of “let you know” or “meet you there” really anger Germans, who see this time as an event and who, like a little kid who keeps a checklist of who is coming to her birthday party, want to know who will be in attendance. Lunch is unhurried and can last over an hour. It will involve inside jokes and sometimes multiple beers (yes, this is a workday). When I’m home in the evening and think back over my day, lunch is what I remember the most. It kind of characterizes the whole day. Afternoon breaks usually consist of coffee. Today my lab partner was really frustrated at the results of a gel and exasperated vowed, “Today I will have a coffee.” As if he was getting revenge somehow with the coffee. I guess breaks really are a form of revenge against the workplace. They’re a rebellion against the productivity imperative that would rather us act like machines than people. They’re German culture fighting for an admirable place in modern life and saying, “Oh, we’ll eat our cake…and we’ll sit and have it too.” Respect.
My new year’s resolution for 2013 was to conquer fear. I’m tired of letting fear keep me inside a tiny box, and my imagination comes to life when I ponder the question, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” I started off by swimming in the ocean off the Gold Coast of Australia. I’m not a good swimmer, so waves are quite intimidating for me, and I’m afraid of jellyfish, sharks, and well, even fish. Also my friend told me that in Australia there’s this octopus called the blue-ringed octopus that hangs out in tide pools and around coral reefs and will kill you within minutes of contact. So I was terrified the whole time I was in the water, but I swam for maybe 10 minutes and came out feeling like a hero. I wanted more of that hero sensation upon returning to Germany, but instead my fears overwhelmed me. In the first few days back, I felt anxious about walking out the door and getting on a bus, anxious about all that I needed to be doing and was not doing, anxious at the thought of the many dark, cold months ahead. I was quite happy to abandon my new year’s resolution, to instead stay in bed where everything was familiar and comfortable yet stagnant. I was happy there until one day when I had to make some revisions on a paper up for publication, and there was a deadline in just a few days. I panicked. Even though I had written almost the entire paper successfully, these few minor changes now seemed impossible for me to make. I stayed in bed trying to calm myself down, trying to overcome my fear, but I just couldn’t. Eventually I had to get up, walk over to the computer, and make the revisions to the paper. And afterwards, of course, I felt great. I felt that hero sensation once more. Now I’ve decided come upon another fear: writing this blog. I’ve put off writing an entry for so long because I’ve been too afraid to write. Is the content even worth posting? Does my writing just sound like well-thought-out complaints to everyone reading? Then I realized that the first step to conquering fear is to notice when you’re afraid. I had started to notice that I was afraid to write a post, and I knew that the only way to feel better was to write a post. So I’m writing a post saying, “Hey, I’m afraid.” Maybe fear isn’t something that necessarily should be “conquered.” Fear tells us exactly what we want to do but feel we can’t. Instead of conquering it, maybe we should greet it–“Hey, I see you, and I know I’m afraid”–and then just keep walking in that direction that we feel we shouldn’t go, whether it’s into the water or up to the keyboard. Maybe I can get to know this fear inside myself, become friends with it, and use it as my compass. Now when fear comes around, instead of conquering it, I’ll try to take it as a sign that I’m doing something worthwhile.