That Was Us: An Expat’s Search for Home

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The baby toys will be the first to go — no use in packing them up; by the time they are unearthed again she’ll find them infantile anyway, pieces of plastic she’ll toss out of the bin to get to the better stuff, her head buried in the search. I’ll put them in the corner of the room next to the boxes of winter coats and try not to worry about where they’ll go next. Probably into the garbage barrels in the courtyard next to the bicycles, although a more organized person would have found a friend with a younger baby or at least a charity that would happily take them, but my Internet research skills are still poor in German, and all our friends with younger babies have already moved.

Holding onto people here, so far from where we came from, is like trying to make time stand still; the second you settle into some semblance of routine — dinner, Friday, as usual, our place or yours? We’ll bring a salad and that chocolate cake I froze earlier this week? — you get together for coffee and there it is: We’re moving.

Well, fuck you, too.

How many times had this happened in three years? The slow unveiling, a few bottles in, all of us relaxed around the dinner table after the push to get everyone sat and fed. Reclining while the kids played across the apartment for a few minutes without intervention, plates wiped clean, rice and wine drops splattered across placemats, puddles of food under the kids’ chairs, all to be cleaned up later or in the morning, or days on when someone slipped on a browning mash of avocado. I’d look around and think, this is okay, this is really a fine life, we really have managed, and that’s when it would come up.

So. The couple looking at each other across the wreckage. So.

Soon we will be those people: too busy to get together for goodbye picnics and spontaneous trips to the Spielplatz because all our time is spent sorting through bags of baby clothes — onesies I stuffed into a drawer when the snaps refused to close — or researching daycares, buying plane tickets, combing Craig’s List for affordable apartments. A life of half-packed bags and endless regenerating lists and piles of mismatched crap you think you’ll sort through but will eventually end up in the trash with the rest; a life of pulling your heart slowly out of a place before knowing exactly where you’ll set it down next.

I thought leaving this apartment, at least, would be easy — we’ve spent much of the last two years cursing it, dreaming about moving: its tiny kitchen for one, the too-thin wall that separates our room from the baby’s — she’ll be so close, it’ll be cozy, our stupidly childless selves thought — the total lack of sunlight in the living room, the many flights of stairs the baby all too often refuses to climb (“Mama, carry you!”). We fell in love with it when we first saw it: the impossibly high ceilings, the neighborhood that could trick you into thinking you were in Berlin or Brooklyn. The spare furniture: enough to keep us from eating off paper plates on the floor but not too overwhelming to have stepped into someone else’s taste. It was a place — our first — that we could really make our own.

Now neither of us knows why we fell so hard — most of the flat is dark and the furniture looks, if this is possible, both ancient and like it’s from the ’80s, heavy wooden cabinets equipped with rusted keys, consoles with diagonal designs and rounded edges and shiny gold knobs. The gauzy white curtains are splattered with yellow flowers. My husband didn’t want to risk our deposit by making holes in the plaster, so the walls are still mostly white and bare, save an 8×10 sketch of a tree that wasn’t offensive enough to take down. (Save, too, the inadvertent crayon murals in the kid’s room.)

“This isn’t our stuff!” is the first thing I say to anyone who walks in. This isn’t us! has been my perpetual refrain. One day, somewhere, I’ll show you what is.

But leaving this place also means leaving those last weeks of pregnancy, when we’d take nightly walks from our old sublet over to the new place, my husband lugging a few bags of clothing over his shoulder, or pushing the pram loaded up with toiletries and paperbacks with one arm, our fingers locked together in the hand of the other, our future always just a few blocks off. I’d come by in the afternoons to check on something — did the kitchen house a Cafeteria, a salad spinner, a good sharp knife? — and inadvertently take a nap on the bare mattress, wake up not knowing where I was, tiny legs kicking at my insides.

It means leaving the first home our daughter ever knew: where, in the throes of early mobility, she bounded off the couch and onto her head on the wood with a smack, both of us screaming; where I gathered her up so that our hearts were pressed together, beating wildly. Where she shoved her shoes onto the wrong feet and yelled, “Noa do it, allein!” when either of us tried to help. Where, when she was a very small baby, I spent hours worrying I might tilt the massive window open a little too widely, just enough to tip myself out.

To be an expat is to always feel slightly on the fringe of things. It is to perpetually be a little lost, to live with the nagging feeling that your life — your real life, the one in which you can speak to the grocer, the pharmacist, or on the phone, the one in which you have your choice of jobs, of friends, of pantry-staples — is happening elsewhere. It is to no longer really belong anywhere; to lose the ability to say, with total assuredness, This is my home.

Three years ago, my husband and I moved to Vienna, Austria. I came from Brooklyn, where I had lived for a dozen years; he moved from Munich, Germany, where he had been for two. Next summer, right after our daughter — our born and bred Wienerkind — turns three, we will relocate our small family to the other edge of the western world, to Los Angeles, a place that is almost as foreign to me as Vienna once was. As the wife of an academic on the tenure-track prowl, I’ve spent three years wondering where and when we’d go, perpetually holding my breath; trying to forge roots — always knowing I’d eventually have to pull them loose.

My husband and I were married within a year of meeting, a year during which my idea of home was flipped, in an instant, on its head. I lucked into a rent-stabilized apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, at 23 and held onto it — furnishing it with second-hand wares from Housing Works, inherited dishware from my older sister, and then slowly upgrading one bedspread and rug at a time — for 11 years. During that time, there was much upheaval in my life — an overhaul in careers, one particular boyfriend coming and going, short stints away in Boulder and Harlem and Montreal — but the apartment, a rickety, sunny one-bedroom on a tree-lined side street, always took me back it. It is the place where I learned to live alone, where I recovered from surgery and heartbreak and the myriad joys and indignities of life as a single girl in New York. It provided a sense of stability where there was otherwise very little.

When my husband — then a stranger — swept in from afar, in the form of an email from Germany, everything changed.

Come live with me in Munich, he asked, after our first two-week long date. (He’d flown in for it after months of emails and Skype calls.) It’ll only be for four months, until my fellowship is over. We can try it out. I had just finished graduate school, my teaching job was only one-semester long, and I had no plans but to finish my thesis. At the end of the experiment, we’d go back to Brooklyn. (I never imagined leaving New York for good.)

Two months into our stint in Munich, he was offered a six-year fellowship in Vienna — a place, like Munich, that I had never thought twice about. The decision to go with him to Germany had been relatively easy, if impulsive — it was time-limited, an almost preposterously romantic way to test out our burgeoning love. I wouldn’t need to find a job or friends or a place to live. Vienna, of course, would be different.

But so was I: In New York, my life had been made up of a web of close girlfriends, women I saw many days a week for dinner, for drinks, for yoga, with whom I shared every detail of my existence. But all through the long winter in Munich, this new man and I lived a cocoon-like existence, spending time with no one but each other. Europe was in the midst of a deep freeze and it snowed all through February and March. Every night ended under mounds of blankets, our bodies intertwined. We lived in a studio apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows, and I’d sit in our only Ikea chair and write, watching flakes sweep by and land on our small balcony, which, once summer came, we dubbed “the other room.” We ate Weisswurst with mustard and pretzels with butter, drank beer and gluhwein and bottle upon bottle of cheap red wine — together, always together. I had a decade’s worth of stuff piled into my Carroll Gardens apartment — shelves of books, framed photos of family along every wall, dresses and coats taking on the shape of the coat hangers in the closet — but had packed only one big suitcase, half a dozen memoirs for inspiration. It was all I needed. I had never been so happy, so unencumbered, in so many ways. By the time we decided to take the leap, to move to Vienna, to hitch our wagons to each other for good, he had become my home.

When we got the news that we’d be moving to L.A., I hid in our bedroom and cried — not because I didn’t want to go (I did, there are so many reasons I did, I do), but because I realized — despite how difficult it had been to settle in, despite my almost unending resistance to fully assimilate to Austrian life — how many roots I had actually managed to put down here. How many would, in the end, be yanked out.

If Munich was a time for us to become two, Vienna has been a time for us to become three, a family. But because this is so difficult — so surprisingly unintuitive, so frustrating at times, especially without the net of old friends or family nearby, of any previous existence in this place, of a sturdy decades-long marriage to hold us steady — it has been a time for me to erect scaffolding around us, as I once did in Brooklyn: the strong support beams that friendship provides. These friends — women, mostly, with small children and roots elsewhere — have become my means of survival, a way of finding my rightful place in a strange land. It has been a time to say, Come by tonight. We’ll serve you dinner on borrowed plates, on borrowed time. To say: Please, let’s not forget how close our girls became. Come visit us when we get there.

Now, for the first time in our relationship, we are moving to a place where we will presumably stay for good, or at least for a real chunk of time: Where we can unpack boxes of wedding gifts that have collected dust in my mother-in-law’s guest room and unroll carpets from Carroll Gardens that have be sitting in my parents’ basement and place them just so; where we can buy that long wooden table we’ve been longing for. Where we can make holes in the walls, hang our lives up for our guests to see: This is us! I’ll be able to say. This is us! See? This is who we really are! We’re finally home!

But I’ll know, deep down: That was us, too — the ugly curtains and the ancient consoles. The shiny leather sofa, the pastel blue mugs, the Austrian pillows that made us wake with aches in our necks. Of course it was. That new couple struggling to become a family in a foreign place where everything in our possession was on loan from other expats or belonged to our landlord; where very little made sense, and we were forever trying to find our footing, forever wondering where we’d be next, forever ready to pack up shop, to unload for good: That was us, too. We were home.

I just didn’t know it then.

Photo courtesy of the author.

The Language of Another World: A New Yorker in Munich

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Yesterday, for the first time since arriving in Munich 10 days ago, I successfully ordered a glass of water. This is much harder than it sounds. German waiters never offer you water with the menu, which means you have to order it; but make sure to ask specifically for tap water, or else they’ll pop open a bottle and expect you to pay. The major obstacle, of course, is how it’s pronounced. “A glass of water”: Leitungswasser. And that’s without the “Can I please have…?”

I mastered my latte order, but have nonetheless been dying of thirst. (Never mind that a glass of water always comes in what looks like a shot glass.) I even started bringing my very American aluminum water bottle to restaurants and trying to fit it under the tap in the bathrooms’ miniature sinks.

After a week of this, David, my boyfriend, who has been living in Munich for almost two years, made me practice “Can I have a glass of water please?” all the way to the café. “Ich hätte gern ein Leitungswasser bitte. Just keep repeating it,” he said as we trudged through the snow, laptops slung over our shoulders. “Lei-tungs-wasser. That’s how you’ll remember.”

I tried using a mnemonic device: “lie” then “tomb” then, with a British accent, “vase” — lie tombs vaaah-sa — but I kept picturing an Egyptian tomb with some tulips strewn about.

I grew up in Montreal speaking English and French, and, in high school and college, studied Spanish. German, in my view, is much harder than all of those languages combined — although David tells me this is not empirically true.

He is a linguist, which means that he has over 40 language and/or dictionary apps on his iPod Touch. He also knows more than his fair share of languages, and is always eager to pick up another. During our first conversation, I asked him how many he knew.

After a long silence, he finally said, “Twenty or 30?”

I gasped.

“But most of them are dead!”

He claims that English is the only language he can actually speak. This is modesty at its worst. He studies ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, and can communicate quite fluently in German, Chinese, Hebrew, and Spanish. After being in Munich for less than a year, he taught a linguistics course at the university in German. He’s currently teaching himself French and carries a pocket French-German phrasebook wherever he goes. If I leave the room, when I come back he has already figured out how to tell me, in perfectly accented, perfectly conjugated French, that Sarkozy has announced his bid for re-election. He can’t wait for our trip to Paris.

I’m still working on Wasser.

I have come to Munich from New York to live with David while he finishes a post-doctoral fellowship at the Thesaurus linguae Latinae — the Latin equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary. David writes entries — or definitions — for Latin words, in Latin. The letter “A” was published in 1900. Right now, the team is working on both “N” and “R” — “Q” has been deemed too difficult and is being foisted on a future generation of scholars. When they completed “P,” in 2010, they had a party. The whole venture is supported by the Bavarian government.

“Who’s the dictionary for?” I asked him when he first told me about it.

“I think we’re writing it for God,” he said.

Since I’m a graduate student in the throes of thesis writing, I sublet my Brooklyn apartment, which I have lived in for 11 years, and flew over with a handful of books and a partially finished manuscript. We’ll go back to the city in June.

Back home, swimming breaks my day in half, so one of our first expeditions was to the local pool. Germans take their pools as seriously as New Yorkers take their gyms and yoga studios — they are open all day, every day. Our pool even has a tram stop named after it: Nordbad. The biggest pool was built for the 1972 Summer Games, and you can watch Olympic-caliber divers perform three or four beautiful flips off the highest platform. The first day I saw this, I immediately flashed to Greg Louganis cracking his skull open in Seoul.

If you think the Germans run their pools the way they run their trains, as I did, you would be wrong. Instead, imagine being dropped into a pen with dozens of people in blindfolds, swimming at each other.

Because I am a New Yorker this shocked me. During our inaugural visit, the chaos left me standing waist-deep in chlorine with my hands up in the air and my mouth ajar. Getting to the other end of the pool was like playing a game of chicken: who’s going to yield first?

I’ve been swimming in NYC pools for over six years (Red Hook remains my favorite), and order — signs: fast swimmers here, slow ones over there; and an agreed-upon system: let’s go up this side, down the other  — is the only thing that keeps us from killing each other. When someone passes me without warning (by neglecting to tap my foot), causing a collision, I have more than once stopped and yelled out, “Really?!”

I don’t yet know how to say that in German, nor do I think it’s culturally acceptable. I’m left to muddle through.

During the day, the Nordbad is far less crowded. One wall is made up almost entirely of windows, so the space is doused in white winter light. The swimmers aren’t in a hurry. Young women swim side by side in pairs, chatting as they move leisurely through the breaststroke. They look like old friends on an early morning jog, minus the fanny packs. In a country where no one jaywalks and everyone pays (actually pays) for the subway on the honor system, the loosening of order here in the water is curious.

On the far end of the deck, down a few stairs and through thick plastic flaps of the kind you find at a New York deli, there is a massive outdoor hot tub. Because Europe is in the midst of a great freeze, thick clouds of mist hover and dance above the surface of the water, making it hard to see what company you’re keeping. Clearings reveal old ladies in shower caps doing water aerobics. Under the water, your body is hot, but the air slipping into your lungs is clear and extremely cold.

With language out of reach, it’s hard not to feel as if I’m in a dream, or that I’ve crossed over to another world. The buildings surrounding the tub on three sides are old — peach and yellow, with wrought-iron balconies — and coated in snow. I could have been in 19th-century Russia. Today it was snowing, so we drifted along with our bare shoulders under the water, snowflakes dissolving into our wet hair.

When the tongue being spoken all around you is just a slew of unintelligible sounds — and the signs mere hieroglyphics — your own words seem to mean more, to fall more heavily to the page and into the air. Something about this unnerves me — do I really want what I say and what I write to resonate that loudly, to be the heavy stones that fall all the way to the bottom of the ocean and rest there?

Image courtesy of the author.