We’re going home. Well, I’m going home. Sort of. I’ve never actually lived in Austin, but it’s one of those cities where I can just show up and feel at home. Berlin feels the same way. There are familiar places, familiar faces, and I can always come and go as I choose. I’ve stayed with various people in various neighborhoods in both cities and it was like living there temporarily. Going back always feels comfy, like putting on a favorite sweatshirt. And I often manage to borrow a bike.
I’ve done this before. The first time was 10 years ago. I studied abroad for six months in Dresden, Germany and had that once-in-a-lifetime experience that most study abroad students in Europe tend to have. I had an amazing roommate who helped me learn German by using the language in everyday communication. We carried her and her wheelchair into bars and restaurants she had never visited because of steps. I made a group of international friends who helped open my eyes to the world. We cooked, partied, hiked together in multiple languages and cultures. I traveled with my boyfriend at the time, who was studying abroad in London. Among other adventures, he snuck me into a film screening at the Cannes Film Festival and we talked with Neo-Nazis at the ruins of a Third Reich tribune at a rock music festival in Nürnberg. I interned with a national TV station, ZDF. Because one of the editors lent me her old East German Diamant, I experienced that bicycles are a valid form of everyday transportation.
Then I went home. It was awful. When you prepare for a study abroad experience, you know that things will be different. You go in with an open mind and an open heart. When you return, you’ve changed. But “home” probably hasn’t. Or maybe it has, but you didn’t get the memo. I wasn’t prepared for that. I used to love being a loud and crude member of the drumline. In the fall of 2001, I fantasized about breaking my ankle so I wouldn’t have to march. I thought I would get back together with my boyfriend. Didn’t work out. Then “home” did change. The events of September 11, 2001 shattered the tolerant intercultural world I had just created. The band marched in a typical New England Halloween parade which was punctuated by untypically violent floats. There was a giant figure wearing a turban that was putting a knife in its heart. There was a turban on a skeleton with a sign reading “you wanted him dead or alive”. There were reports of an Indian student wearing a turban getting spit on by “real Americans”. Woah. It was awful.
But it got better. I readjusted. I reintegrated. I began to appreciate the positive things in both cultures, instead of yearning for what was missing.
Since then, I’ve had many study abroad-like experiences. Working with a study abroad program and doing my masters in Dresden, extended visits to friends in West Africa and Japan, interning with the European Parliament in Luxembourg. But by the time I got to Hamburg in early 2010, I was a full fledged expat. My brother used to wonder when I’d enter the “real world”. I did that in Hamburg. Sort of. I worked for a real estate company and for a University of Hamburg cutting edge research group. Both of my bosses rode their bikes to work. Does that count as “real world”? But while both jobs involved an international crowd, I was getting further away from my passions of exploring and educating others about foreign languages and cultures… and the University of Texas in Austin has one of the biggest German departments in the US.
So I’m going home again. But this time it’s different. I’ve lived in Europe now for about eight years. I can do grown-up things here without batting an eye. Things like “Krankenversicherung”, “Aufenthaltsgenehmigung“, and “Steuererklärung“ are pretty routine. But the concepts “health insurance”, “residence permit” and “taxes” scare me to death. I became an adult in Germany. Now I have to become an adult in the US. And anyone who tells you how bad German bureaucracy is has never applied for a green card.
Speaking of which, my German husband will be coming with me. He is a true European: speaks four languages, has lived in Italy and Kenya, and plays accordion. And he rides a bike. That’s actually why I gave him my number back in 2005. We met in an African drumming class. He wanted to practice his English with me. As this was my first day of a Masters program in German, that was the most unattractive thing he could have said. But he had this weird bike, a “Liegerad”, so I gave him my number anyways. And two years later, we got married. Two years after that, we finished our respective degrees in Dresden, a city we’d both come to love, but which offered us no career perspectives. We wanted to go to the US, but didn’t find any jobs. Anywhere. In 2009, the financial crisis was looming on everyone’s lips. So we stayed in Europe, where we had safer perspectives.
But safe is boring. I moved temporarily to Luxembourg to be a trainee in the European Parliament, which was amazing, but which seemed much less of an adventure than moving to the US. Europe had become my new home. I am now a foreigner in my country of birth. And that’s why we’re going back – we both want to live “abroad” again.
So now, in 2011, we’ve decided now to start our own businesses. Elmar will break into the solar industry. I will offer foreign language learning experiences for students who, for whatever reason, can’t study abroad. So I’m coming home, but bringing the world with me. And if our two year cycle continues, I can’t wait to see what changes 2013 bring.