July 18, 2012

In Her Arms

People travel abroad for all kinds of reasons. To relax. To challenge preconceptions. For work. For warmth. For snow. For food. To learn. Make memories. Mix it up. Get out of comfort zones. For the thrill. For bragging rights. Because a place is extraordinary. Because it's beautiful. Because it's scary. Sometimes, simply for something different. Usually, though, people don't travel to feel at home.

When we crossed from Switzerland into Germany, the faintest outline of the Alps fading behind us, I listened as our local bus driver made a call on his cell phone. He spoke in a German dialect I would later understand as Swabian. All I knew then was that his words were full of an easier music, a rounded lightness. Lynn, our German teacher and my fellow chaperone, leaned over to me and whispered, "He just said, 'Germany has us in her arms again.'"

From that moment, something very specific about our trip changed. We were still and always foreigners in another land. We were reminded of our differentness constantly, by our shoes, the boys' baseball caps, our cravings for ketchup. But our bus pulled up into a school parking lot full of families--still strangers, but families with moms and dads and little brothers, all eager to incorporate us into their daily lives--and as the American students left with the German students, and as the American teachers were greeted by the German teachers, we were no longer travelers in the same way, and we felt something in our hearts open as door upon door was held wide for us.

For me, there was the car ride down side streets to "my apartment" in Carolin's vintage Mini Cooper; there was the way we talked immediately of London and college and husbands; the key she handed me, the welcome wine on the table, the space to unpack my things. There was Annette who, for the duration of my stay, lent me her purple bike with the beautiful basket. There was a guided trip to the local grocery store, a welcome dinner on a hill, a sweater given to me when I was cold, two little children who looked me shyly in the eyes and spoke their phrases of English, a whole night full of German flags clipped to car windows and flung over balconies and worn across chests in anticipation for the Euro Cup match that I would later watch in German, and though I wouldn't understand the announcer's words, I still somehow felt a part of things. I still cheered at the goals. I still pulled open my screenless windows at 11:00 pm and listened to the sound of incessant and jubilant honking throughout Lahr as Denmark's fooseball team fell to the Motherland. After, that first night, I pulled down the outdoor shades and slept for ten hours.

Travel, for me, is many things, but it has never been sleep. I woke the next morning astounded at my comfort, at my disregard for time passing like any other day. I made breakfast. I reopened the windows and listened to the songbirds flit across the garden.

The truth is I would have become lonely in the apartment had that Sunday been longer. I had a kitchen and a patio, and no students I had to look after, no museum I had to navigate, no bus I had to catch, and spaces that could have felt so easily like my Minnesota rooms except I knew that they weren't mine. That I wasn't home. That instead I was an ocean away from people who knew me. So when Heimfried and Ingrid, the couple who owned and lived above the apartment I was staying in and who were also retired English teachers, invited me up that night to share drinks and local maps and books and their genuine and generous spirits, I felt a bit like crying, so grateful was I for even their momentary friendship.

Throughout the three weeks I stayed in Lahr, though, these two became much more than an evening's company. They were under no obligation, yet they drove me to the train station, had me up to dinner, brought me to the market, lent me their carrot peeler, insisted I try some cake, shared their backyard garden, let me wash my laundry, helped me purchase tickets, taught me German phrases, drove us to the Black Forest and over the Rhine and into the Alsace, participated in countless conversations about their global travels and the German education system and the Green Party and the history of the region and American literature and their soon-to-be-a-father son; in short, showed so much compassion for a woman they couldn't have imagined just a few days before, that I simply fell in love with them. They felt, so quickly, like a kind of family.

I agreed to accompany Lynn and 27 students on this month of travel because Europe fascinates me, because I've found I learn best and most deeply through direct experience, and because I've always been hungry for the new. I believed that new meant new country, new city, new landmark, new language, new food. What I didn't anticipate was how these weeks with Germany's people--Carolin and Annette and Anita and Daniel and Danny and Nina and Sarah and Heimfried and Ingrid--how they would fundamentally change the way I thought about experiencing the world. Yes, it's still about place. Yes, it's about the sensory details that belong only right there. Believe me that I went on many solitary walks through the hills and marveled at the darkness of the woods, the particular brown of the needles on the forest's floor, the filtering light. The difference is that, after those walks, I hopped back on my borrowed bike--questions in my head for Heimfried, cherries in my basket for Ingrid--and pedaled toward a foreign place I treasured because it was full of people I had come to know.

July 8, 2012

Lahr, Germany: In Photos

Lahr (Schwarzwald), Germany: The area where I spent half of June and the first week of July. It reminded me in many ways of Minnesota. Although, in other ways, it was all and only Deutschland. And yes, in time I will expound.

This will be the first in what I'm guessing will be a good number of "in photos" posts. So much to share! But first a disclaimer: the first photo was actually taken right outside of Seelbach, a neighboring village to Lahr. Isn't the Black Forest beautiful? 

Hope you've been well, friends. It is strange and wonderful to be home (my own bed! English!), and although I want to and will live in the present as much as I can for the rest of this summer, I know when I'm in my moments of reflection, it will be gratitude gratitude gratitude.

July 6, 2012

From the Kids: What I Learned in Europe

At the end of the trip, some deep thoughts for the road home:   :)

  • J: Europeans drive aggressively.
  • M: How to make stick bread!
  • Z: How to play handball.
  • M: That Public Viewing is one of the most awesome things ever!
  • M: I learned that people here don't wear sweatpants or yoga pants; how to use The Tube; how to use the city bus; that when people cross the street in London, cars speed up, not slow down; people don't use casual shoes; I can understand a lot of the German that people are speaking, but I don't always know how to respond; PDA is WAY more acceptable here.
  • D: Germans eat a LOT more than us. We were expected to eat a whole pizza when we usually share with like four other people.
  • A: I learned that everyone's culture is so different. You know that other cultures are different, but when you experience it, it's so cool. Six different countries in one month and seeing all the cultures. This trip makes me want to travel even more. This is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I learned a lot about myself and other things.
  • B: How to use a taxi in London!
  • J: The majority of German people think French people are weird.
  • L: I can now understand almost everything they say in German, it's just hard to respond. Also I learned how to be responsible with my money...okay, MORE responsible than before. Haha.
  • M: I learned how to become more independent; to take advantage of ALL of life's opportunities and adventures; about German/European traditions; to try everything; and live life to the fullest.
  • K: That life is full of new opportunities and experiences, and that you need to take advantage of them and do everything you can while you have the chance!
  • T: Driving 'stick' (manual transmission) is tough! I also learned that I love to travel! I like exploring and seeing new things. I'm very glad I chose to go on this trip.
  • C: Always be mindful of what I'm doing. I'm in a different culture. Something that's okay in America might not be okay here (e.g. feet on the table, NOT ALLOWED).
  • H: I learned why time is added onto the end of a soccer game, and that Spain is the Euro Cup champ.
  • H: Mastered the London Underground. :)
  • N: You can get sunburn in the mountains, even though it's cold!
  • L: I learned from the Euro Cup that Germans have a lot of national pride when it comes to soccer.
  • C: You can just drive to France or Switzerland; you don't need your passport.
  • H: I learned 'suka,' which sounds like soccer, is a bad word in Russian; how to understand German in a Russian accent; they say 'war' in past tense, not 'ist gewesen'; anywhere you go in Europe is going to be slightly different and unique; they don't wear yoga pants, spandex, or sports bras...anywhere!; smoking is much more accepted here; Germany has a lot of immigrants; PDA is normal, and sometimes used as a greeting; how to use the city bus; almost all the boys play soccer; the haircuts are different (New Jersey style); and they generally wear shoes, not flip flops.
  • K: I learned that no matter what language you speak, love is universal; how to play handball; and that I love Germany!