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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
JUAN ANTONIO: What?
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.
JUAN ANTONIO: Ya, ya.
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. : )
I’ve been told that during times of stress our adrenal glands kick in to prepare us for two possible responses: fight or flight. This is conventional thought. But I’d like to argue there’s a third response that many animals employ, a response that’s often overlooked. It’s the hide response. When you’re too weak or scared to fight, and you know there’s no use in trying to run away (most of the time for me!), it only makes sense to head for the ditch and take cover. Maybe growing up in a tornado-fraught land selected the hide response in me over the other two. It would seem so because when faced with something terrifying, I almost always decide to hide. I learned, though, that hiding always seems like a better solution than it is. Just think back to Hide-and-Seek as a child and you may remember that when you found a really good hiding place, it was at first intoxicatingly satisfying. You felt sneaky and clever. You were almost in disbelief that such a perfect loophole existed. As time passed, however, you became a bit bored of being isolated from the outside world and others’ company. You grew impatient and began to wonder what was taking the others so long to discover you. You’re hiding place started to work against you as far as fun was concerned. Finally, if you were like me and trusted little in others’ concern for you, you gave up and came out of hiding, only to find that your playmates had long since moved on to the next episode. The immediate rewards of hiding are great, but the end result of doing it is that life moves on without you—you miss out. Even as a pseudo-adult I still love to hide. When something or someone new intimidates me, I retreat. My bed becomes my best friend, in it I feel safe and alone, and I make promises to it like, “Yeah, I know it sucks I have to go to this new class/job/party, but I’ll be back to you in just x hours and then we can relax.” I sometimes sleep for more than 12 hours straight just because my emotions, whether they be dread or sadness or confusion, are just too much for me to face. (Okay, this is only one cause of my hypersomnia, so don’t jump to conclusions!) I get a false sense of security from being alone and worrying. But in this emptiness the threat that I’ve imagined only grows, and the outside environment turns to support it. Being alone and worrying about my fears–dreading them–makes me believe more and more that they’re legitimate. “Yes, this new job must really be awful, because otherwise why would I be so nervous about it?” At the same time, other people can tell that I’m hiding and assume that maybe I’m in a bad mood and don’t want to be bothered, so they avoid contact with me. I then believe that I really am alone, that people are cold, and that I really do have something to fear. Then maybe I become even more isolated and miss out on opportunities for jobs, fun, friendships, etc. You see how quickly things can spiral downward. Suddenly your world becomes very separate from the real world and you lose your grip on reality altogether. This was happening to me as of this morning. That’s when I decided to stop hiding and instead to fight. I thought maybe even if I didn’t have the actual strength to fight this imaginary fear, just the switch in mentality would be enough to turn my downward spiral into an upward draft…just maybe. I decided that my status here as an Ausländer, or foreigner, would make the perfect front for my uncommon audacity. I gave audacity a try, saying, “Throw whatever you want at me life, I’m ready!”, and sure enough, I had great results. People talked to me more. One head of a lab, who I had never seen before, talked with me during our whole elevator ride and then out of the building. My coworkers invited me for coffee. The owner of the Indian market where I went to buy paneer told me it would be much cheaper for me to buy it at the supermarket. They opened up to me. It seemed as if the world opened up to me! And most of all, I had a lot of fun. I laughed at myself and at my own audacity. I did jump turns on the sidewalk ledge as if on a balance beam while passing cars watched me through the rain (sadly this isn’t a metaphor). I smiled at people for no reason at all. I came to respect myself for facing my fears. I grew. And that’s the point. I couldn’t grow in my hiding place. Now “Ich bin neue” (I’m new here) is my favorite phrase and my excuse to make a fool of myself in any situation. The draft has turned upwards. At least now I’m facing my fears. At least I’m not hiding anymore in that staticky orange plastic tunnel on the playground waiting for my friends to notice that I’m gone. Now I’m a part of all that I’d been missing.