When Your Germany Born and Raised Child Doesn’t Speak German–and Other Parent Fails.

Comments 6 Standard

I think all parents have moments where they feel like complete and utter failures, and I’m experiencing that right now.  Here’s my issue: My daughter was born in Germany and yet, at 4.5 years old, she can’t speak a lick of German.

Now, here’s where I need to rush into a complete defense of how/why this is possible.  Laken went to a German Kita (daycare) when she was 1.5-3. She had the most wonderful experience there and picked up some of the language (though she often spoke a pigeon mix of English and German because she hadn’t quite separated the two, yet.) Our plan was to send her on to German Kindergarten (which is the equivalent of pre-school over here.) There, she would gain fluency.  Then, we would put her in an American kindergarten on the army base where my husband and I work, and she could continue on developing her German through community activities/lessons/etc.

We discussed our rationale for not sending her to German school, endlessly.  

First of all, German schools have a different schedule than ours, from the daily level to when their summer break is and how long it lasts. So, that would have been a hassle.  Then, we tried to imagine helping Laken out with her math homework a few short years from now. Seeing as my husband is a self-proclaimed math atheist and doesn’t speak German, and my own German does not cover the vocabulary of polynomials, etc, it just seemed like we’d be putting her at a disadvantage.  Finally–in the military, and even in the relatively sturdy position of DoDEA teachers–there’s always the chance that we’ll be flung into the world of a transfer, or base shutdown, and have to move back to the United States. I’m also firmly convinced the government will one day be alerted to the incredibly good deal teachers of military children get and cancel the whole operation.  

Perhaps our biggest reason for not wanting to send Laken to a German school was that we’ve simply heard better things about American schools.  I hate to say that, because I do think Germany is so amazing that I want to hold it up as an example in all sorts of ways but, in the case of education, it’s just the common denominator for what we’d been told.  

They also track students in this country.  In fourth grade the teachers sit down and decide whether a child seems destined to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, or a prostitute and send them to one of three schools after fourth grade geared towards sending the child to the predetermined point B.

I just don’t like that.  It reeks of The Giver, if you’ve ever read that book.  So, we decided to take advantage of the superb German kindergarten system, allow our daughter to become fluent, and unleash her upon the German community in all sorts of playgroups and hip-hop Tanzkuerse, all the while moving through the good old American Common Core, which is a whole other type of hell, but at least one we speak the language and can help out in terms of homework.  Maybe.

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans.

We had Laken on no less than thirteen waiting lists for German kindergartens throughout Wiesbaden, and I emailed most of them in broken, beggy German to accept our child.  Eventually she was given a spot at a kindergarten run by the same company as the Kita she first went to.

We were beyond happy to be accepted, but in the end it didn’t work out.  The rooms on the first three floors of the center were your typical construction paper laden, sunflower and butterfly-heavy dream, with children’s artwork hung on the walls and wooden toys galore (as Germans don’t gravitate towards the plastic, flashing, noisy ones.) But, the room Laken was assigned to–the Dachgeschoss, aka attic room–was less than ideal.

They attempted to cram 25 children into a tiny, windowless, soulless, art project-less space.  The teachers blithely greeted the kids in the morning before gathering at their own table to eat an adult breakfast and let the kids fend for themselves for the better part of the morning.  Whereas the rooms on the bottom floors had bulletin boards with neat schedules framed with butterfly emojis, laying out the Thursday field trips and the English lessons and dance classes, there didn’t seem to be any plan at all for the room upstairs.  Something was written in brown crayon on a crumpled piece of paper and stuck to the wall.

I kept asking when they’d be taking the famed Thursday field trips, like the kids in all the other rooms were doing, and was told “soon.”

Whenever we picked Laken up, she was tucked away in a little galley where they stored the cots, playing something by herself.  I think she went there to hide, and it broke my heart.

She held onto her Minnie Mouse lunch box like a comfort object. I dissolved inwardly when I led her up the eight flights of stairs to her classroom and saw her chubby little hand gripping the pink handle with no intention of letting go.  Her teachers couldn’t get her to leave it inside during lunchtime. She took it outside with her when all hundred something kids at the center were released to the playground, and carried it close when she ran smack into the middle of a game of soccer played by kids at the neighboring Grundschule. 

They yelled at her in German to get out of the way, and she stopped to suck her thumb and stare at them, uncomprehending. No teacher stepped in to help her.

I tried to convince myself Laken would do fine there until one day when I was leaving the kindergarten side by side with the mother of the smallest child in the room.  She cried all eight flights down the stairs about how awful it made her feel to leave her child there, and how she was looking for somewhere (anywhere) else for her daughter, and that was my definitive breaking point, too.  If even the Germans parents weren’t stoic about the situation, I most certainly couldn’t be.

That moment, coupled with the conversation I had with another teacher who worked at the center (who was attending a birthday party we were at) who let me know that we should try to get Laken in another room because these teachers were notably mean to the kids–so much so that this teacher confronted them over a scene she witnessed in the cafeteria.

Yeah, no.

So, we put Laken in the Child Development Center on base and it has been more or less a great experience.  We are on the same vacation schedule. She’s learning site words. She’s made friends. I know she’s in an environment where the teachers take profound measures to ensure her physical safety, whereas at German kindergarten kids are a bit more on the trial and error system. In other words, go ahead and try out climbing that tree–but when you faceplant on the concrete, you’ll have learned your error and the stitches are an unfortunate bonus.

But.

Even though I know we made the best decision for our child at the time, I can’t help but feel like I’ve set up our daughter for failure. It’s so easy, so easy, in the military community, to live an isolationist life.  The military base can be like a giant, beige-colored bubble of at-home perks to include everything from Kellogg’s cereals to English movies.

I know many people–I’d venture to say most of the military families here–who have settled in Germany and restricted themselves entirely to that bubble.  It’s a tempting, cozy little existence and very easy to fall back on.

I realize that this problem might seem highly solve-able.  Why not sign your daughter up for activities now, anyway? That’s where she’ll learn German! Get a German tutor! Have her watch German cartoons! Make German friends!

All of these things are falling flat in my attempts to make up for the fact that, in our decision to send Laken to American school, we are potentially cutting her off from the society she was born into on the macro level.

I’ve looked up all child-centered activities in the Rheingau area–from table tennis to programs at the local Feuerwehr (fire station.) Everything starts at a time too early in the day for us. Because German schools let out earlier, activities start earlier and there simply isn’t anything we could be around for.  We had a German babysitter, but she just had a baby and tackling my child’s linguistic deficiencies has taken a lower rung on the priority ladder. We do watch German cartoons on a daily basis and, while Laken stares at them while happily eating her mermaid shaped Fruit Loops, I don’t think the take-aways are significant.

As for making neighborhood friends…the house we just bought is on a quiet street where I’d say the average resident is 97.  

Twice we were at a local playground, though, and I convinced my child–my brave, present, eager baby–to approach a group of kids and say, “Hallo! Mein Name ist Laken!” with hopes that would lead to all sorts of things, presumably inclusion on the teeter totter and then a lifetime of neighborhood friendship and language aptitude.

Sadly, in both cases the children stared at my daughter like she was some kind of walking virus, and then they stared over at me as I gamely explained in German that, “This is Laken and she’s four and she wanted to introduce herself because she’d just love to play with you?!” only to be told in no uncertain, gutteral terms that they weren’t interested.

Ugh.

I think the point of this whole rant is that at certain points, as a parent or as an adult, we’re more aware than ever of the Butterfly Effect our choices might have.  And, the fear that this Butterfly Effect might take a horrific trajectory for the people we love the most, who aren’t yet capable of making their own major life decisions, is terrifying.  

My greatest fear is that Laken will one day look at me and ask why I didn’t do more to make sure she didn’t feel isolated from the country she was born in.  Just writing those words makes me want to cry.

I already find myself in situations where I have to defend Laken for this choice we made.  For example, her primary physician is fond of making comments like, “What a shame it would be if she grew up here and didn’t speak the language!” YES, I KNOW THAT, AND AM LOSING MY MIND OVER THIS FACT BUT BY ALL MEANS, MAKE A COMMENT.  Or, when we went back to the States for Christmas I got lots of questions like, “So, does she just know to switch from German to English whenever you come home?” And, there’s a part of me that wants to LIE and say yes, that’s exactly what happens. Just like I sometimes want to lie when people ask how long I’ve been living in Germany for and I want to cut the number of years I give them in half to make it sound like my language is more appropriately fluent than it is.

At the same time, I do believe that as parents we have to make carefully evaluated calls that feel like the very best ones for our families at the time.  A friend once pointed out to me, and this makes sense, that if things are easier on the parents and stress is kept to a minimum, the kids will benefit from that.

It’s just hard to know sometimes if the choices that seem like the best fit for us, are necessarily the best ones for our children. 

Sometimes, as in this case, I’m just not sure.

I guess the bottom line is that we have to make these calls using our best possible foresight at the time.  Yes, I want my child to speak German, but I don’t want her to hide in a classroom closet all day in order to (possibly) achieve that goal.  Yes, I want my child to be included in this culture, but not at the expense of being entirely alone in comprehending the demands of her school work as she gets older.

Parenting requires us to make life decisions for people who are not yet capable of doing that for themselves. It can be so hard  to do this, but the best we can do is go with our gut instincts, pick a path, and then be entirely in charge of padding any negativity in the Butterfly Effect that follows.

I suppose as long as we do that last thing, we’re doing well by our children.

But, man, it’s hard to feel like I’ve failed at providing my daughter with one skill that should be totally easy for her right now.

Survival Skills: The Teaching Middle School Edition

Leave a comment Standard

I didn’t really believe the statistic I vaguely remembered about 50% of teachers leaving the profession within the first five years.  But, alas. According to blogs.edweek.org, the research is true. What a shame! Teaching is the best profession of all time (second only to “influencers” who are paid to travel the world and post their pictures on Instagram.  That’s a pretty good job, too.) But, it’s also not a surprising figure. The early years of teaching can be overwhelming as you try to find your stride. After all, there’s relatively little support and so much to learn! Teachers don’t just teach, after all.  They’re expected to be disciplinarians, referees, geniuses, quasi-parents, psychologists, and curriculum leaders, to name a few. It takes a while to feel confident in any one of these pairs of shoes.  

I’ve been teaching for ten years, and I’m just starting to feel like I have a handle (sometimes) on what I’m doing.  Even now, I know that I have a ton to learn. In fact, three of my Christmas presents this year were books about teaching (which might also show that I’m a bit of a nerd.)

Anyway, there are a few tips that might just help out the fifty percent who feel like they can’t hack it in the classroom.  Here are my tips for surviving!

  • Give assignments that will be fun to grade.  Let’s face it.  As a teacher, you spend the bulk of your time grading papers.  It’s just what we do. English teachers have it the worst, and don’t let those ornery history teachers tell you otherwise.  Most kids will see a few comments on their papers and not realize that all those brief comments add up. Fast! Grading is one hundred times better if you’re reading something interesting.  Try to give students a bit of choice, so you aren’t reading about the exact same thing one hundred times in a row. Be creative.
  • Don’t grade every single assignment.  If you do, you’ll go crazy.  You’ll drown. You’ll go under water like a seal hunted down by a Great White shark.  Sometimes, it’s okay to just check for completion and call it a day. A fellow educator once told me that if the teacher is working harder than the students, that’s a problem.  I agree. Some things deserve closer attention, comments and a grade. Other things serve as practice and a little check-mark in the book is fine.
  • Students are people.  Remember that.  They aren’t beasts.  (They may look and sometimes smell like they are, but they aren’t.) Not only are they people, they are treasured people to just about all the parents they belong to.  They have feelings, ups and downs, other lives, complicated problems, and a need for down time.  Treat students like the people they are and, best of all, take time to form relationships with these people! Get to know them! Enjoy them! Teaching is 100% better when you have relationships with your students and when you look forward to talking to them every day.  If you are a parent, or even have a close relationship with a child, think about how you’d like to see that child’s school day go. Wouldn’t you want them up, out of their seats at times? Laughing? Enjoying their education? Make it happen.
  • Be consistent and fair.  One thing just about every teacher is told at the beginning of their career is to “not smile until Christmas.” You should be super strict, make sure students fear you and your classroom is a smooth operating machine, and only then can you start smiling at your classes (ie once you’ve got them all under control.)  I don’t think I agree with this. Would you want to spend an hour every single day with someone who goes out of their way to be a disciplinarian machine? Probably not.  Instead, set clear expectations at the beginning of the year, along with consistent consequences for not meeting these expectations.  Follow through, always, and you’ll be good to go.
  • Don’t expect more from the kids than you expect from yourselves.  Teachers are the worst at faculty meetings.  They arrive late, don’t have their materials, talk when the speaker is talking, ask dumb questions, and–maybe I’m speaking for myself here–take frequent bathroom breaks just to get away from it all for a second.  And yet, these are the same teachers who rule with an iron fist and expect their students to be prepared, checked in, and empty-bladdered one hundred percent of the time. That isn’t fair. What we need as teachers, they need doubly as young people. 
  • Beg, borrow, and steal. Why reinvent the wheel? There are, according to nces.ed.gov, 3.6 million secondary teachers in the U.S.A., alone.  That means there are a lot of people doing this thing, and a lot of good ideas floating around as a result. In today’s world we have this thing called the Internet and there are oodles of these ideas to be found there.  How did teachers ever make it through the day pre-Internet? Use it! Follow blogs! See how other professionals are engaging their students.  Ask other teachers in your subject area how they did X, Y, and Z. Go to the web site www.teacherspayteachers.com and be a legit good person by paying other teachers for their ideas! Not gonna lie–finding and trying out new lesson plans is one of my favorite things about this job.
  • Don’t try to be cool.  Don’t put a target on your back.  Don’t say things like, “That’s lit!” or “Your shoes are fire!” You’ll get laughed at.  (However, if you want to be laughed at, by all means do these things.)  My mom was a teacher for many years and her coworker used to go to student parties.  I mean…what?? That’s just weird. And possibly illegal. Don’t be weird.  Don’t be illegal. They have their own friends, already. However, try to be approachable.  There’s a saying (that I can’t remember off the top of my head right now) that goes something like this.  “They’ll forget what you told them or what you learned, but they won’t forget how you made them feel.” I just butchered that saying, but you get the idea.  Be there to listen, and be sure to listen, rather than expound on your own philosophy of life.  Be someone they look forward to talking to. 
  • Reflect.  If you go into teaching thinking that everything you do is the bomb-diggity, you’re going to be in trouble.  There is always, always, always, always room for improvement in this profession.  From day one of teaching, when you’re young and other teachers ask for your hall pass because they confuse you with the students, to day 6,000 when you’re on the verge of retirement and incontinence is becoming an issue, there’s always ways you could improve your teaching.  When a lesson doesn’t go well, acknowledge it and then try to make it better. Learn what students are interested in, and try to bring that into your lessons. Think of each class as its own individual entity, and treat them as such.
  • Get out of the way.  Don’t talk too much.  Get off the stage. This is the hardest thing for most teachers, myself included.  Students need to explore and work on their own. You can and should be there to guide them and answer questions, but remember that the average attention span of an eighth grader is 10-12 minutes.  So, if you’re still yammering away in front of the class after twenty-five, it’s not a benefit to anyone at all. 
  • Don’t take yourself so seriously.  Whenever I feel myself getting all worked up about the standards, my students, their lack of motivation, etc., I take a minute to remember myself in middle school.  Put it this way–I spent the bulk of seventh grade passing a notebook back and forth with a friend of mine. For whatever reason, we thought the name Floyd was the funniest thing we’d ever heard of.  Even funnier was if we could insert ‘Floyd’ in to words or phrases. So, for example, I might add the entries ‘Floydilocks and the Three Bears’ and ‘Little Floyd on the Prairie’ to our notebook and pass it across desks to my friend Jodi, laughing hysterically as I did this.  (A lesson would be going on in front of us, mind you.) So…yeah. That was my level of maturity in middle school. Cracking up over ‘Floyd.’ And yet, I avoided becoming a derelict for the most part, and I’m a functioning member of society who can read and write, so I picked up some things along the way.  At the end of the day, it’s middle school. It’s not worth getting an ulcer.

In conclusion, teaching, like any profession, can be really tough at times–especially at the beginning when you aren’t a pro, yet.  But, give it some time and it might become the type of job where you say, “Wow! I can’t believe I get paid to do this!” It’s an awesome job.  You form relationships with kids, get to design your own day, and you get ten weeks of vacation in the summer.  I mean, come on. That’s ridiculous.

I hope these tips help you survive the 50% dropout rate, and make you the type of teacher who gets all giddy in September when stores stock up on college ruled paper.  It’s a good feeling.

Home or die Heimat

Comments 3 Standard

If this blog post was waiting in your inbox this morning, and you have no clue who I am, let me apologize.  Most likely you subscribed to my blog, BuffaloSchnitzel over a year ago, just in time for me to gain a decent number of subscribers–which led to some panicky writer’s block–and disappear.

I seem to be making it a tradition to reemerge every so often, though…so…hi there! No, I truly hope to stick around this time because I’m much clearer on where I want to go with this blog.

Here are my ideas–and if you’re into it, great! If you’d rather unsubscribe and never hear the words Buffalo or Schnitzel again, I won’t be offended.

So, quick backstory–for the first twenty years of my life I lived in a suburb of Buffalo, New York.  For the more recent twenty years of my life I’ve been an expat primarily living in Germany.

It could be psychological, but now that I’ve reached this official ‘half life’ between America and Europe, I’m more aware of just how much of a relative outsider I am in both places.  Don’t get me wrong–I feel like both America and Germany are home–but I’m essentially a human being pasted together from two cultures and, because I’m missing a half lifetime in both spots, I don’t entirely identify with either one.  

What I find fascinating as an expat, and what I might be able to observe a bit more objectively as someone who has two feet firmly planted in two countries 4,000 miles apart, are the cultural differences.

America and Germany–they can’t be too different, right?

After all, they’re both superpowers with claims to YouTubers and The Bachelor franchise.

But, it turns out that these places are, in many, many, many key ways, oh so different.  From child rearing and public drinking to educational practices, to the level of punishment taken for swearing at a police officer–these two places are the geographical counterpart equivalents of Ernie and Bert.

I’d like to explore these differences in a new series of posts called, ‘Home or die Heimat?’ In them, I’ll discuss a specific cultural aspect of Germany and then we can all vote on what we like better.  The way home does things? Or the way die Heimat does.

The winning country may not get a prize, per se, but the real object here is dialogue.  The most important part of taking time to live in another country is to see how other areas of the world tackle life’s issues.  What is acceptable in one place that is taboo elsewhere? Why? What do these differences say about the societies we grew up in, or our own personal values?

It’s a discussion I enjoy having and find real value in, and I hope you’ll join me in that discussion here.  

My plan is to post once a week, provided I don’t freak out and go AWOL again.

So, about that six month break I took from blogging…

Comments 3 Standard

How does one start blogging again after a six-month absence? I suppose the best way is to jump back in and start posting—and also to apologize.

The last time I wrote, we were headed to Washington State for winter break and I had every intention of posting regularly the whole time we were home. But, the vacation was kicked off by Laken’s first of what became a winter of illnesses. On the airplane she spiked a 105 fever and was so out of it we ended up having a flight attendant summon doctors over the intercom. Laken was driven by ambulance to a Wenatchee hospital the following afternoon and diagnosed with RSV (a virus I’d never even heard of until she got it.)

From there we had a few weeks of health until it was a severe bout with Rotavirus (and she spent two nights in the hospital for that, too, because she lost about 10% of her body weight. The diarrhea was that bad.) Then we were on to stomach flus and colds and pneumonia and the sniffles (which she didn’t mind all that much because she’s developed a fondness for eating her boogers.)

Laken’s Game of Thrones worthy winter of illnesses aside, I just got lazy. And preoccupied with raising a toddler. I wrote blog posts in my head, but they never materialized.

But, it’s time now. My goal is to write at least once a week. I miss blogging—I miss writing and reflecting on life here in Germany. And, I miss reading other people’s blogs. Do you ever have that sudden awareness, when you pass through a crowd of strangers in some public space, that you’re most likely never going to see a single one of them again? That you’ve glimpsed their face incidentally, but you’ll never know their strengths, their intense fears, the way they take in and interpret the universe through their senses?

Well, blogging seems to me like a way to get to know some of these random individuals. To hear their story. To get their take on the quirks of life in whatever part of the world they inhabit. To hear what lessons their day dealt out.

I have lots to write about these days. For one, we just moved away from our beloved Heidelberg and will be living in Wiesbaden, Germany from now on.

How do I feel about this? I asked my husband Todd this question earlier. “Where are you right now with Wiesbaden?” I asked.

Todd ‘s fine. He said that he’s home wherever his family, TV, and beer mugs are.

I’m taking longer to get there. Right now it feels like we’re on vacation and exploring new stores and restaurants (and, BTW, it’s a freaking back breaking vacation, because we have a LOT of stuff and have been working our hineys off.)

I wonder when, or even if, Wiesbaden will go from being a place that feels like vacation…to being home? Is it just time that helps the transition along? My bet is that memories are the foundation.  Relationships are the bricks.

As we walk through Wiesbaden I admire the fact that it’s a very pretty city. There’s no doubt about it. It’s easy to see that there’s a lot of wealth here. The buildings are opulent, have a “frosted wedding cake ceiling” feel to them (to rip off a line of Fitzgerald’s from The Great Gatsby.) There are lots of designer stores on the main drag (Wilhelmstrasse) and good restaurants—we’ve already become regulars at one that makes their own tortillas and is well stocked with craft beer.

See? Wedding cake-like.

We got lucky enough to find a massive apartment right in the middle of the city. Inside it’s very quiet and the rooms have high ceilings and a balcony space covered in unfortunate pigeon droppings.

One highlight for me, so far, was to discover the Kurpark. It’s set behind the Kurhaus and Casino and trails around a man-made lake and goes on for quite a while through a wooded area and crisscrossing trails that pass by opulent mansions that sort of make you want to cry from jealousy.  (Or to stand in front of them for a while in hopes that the owners will see you, find you interesting, invite you in, and spoil you.  Kind of like parties? I still pass by parties, or picnics, or people on boats and have this weird, off base hope that I’ll be invited over.)

But Heidelberg is still home. It’s where I discovered the expatriate life, where I found a love for teaching at international schools. It’s the city I met my husband in, the city that created our test tube child.

I’m getting wordy already. I know that blogs are supposed to be succinct and I’m trying to work on that–but as I’m drafting this I’m realizing there’s so much I’ve needed to reflect on. Why do I do this with writing? Start and stop?

Anyway, let’s wrap this up.

Here are my first impressions of this new Wiesbaden life.

  • As I said, it’s a very pretty city. Does it have the WOW factor that Heidelberg did? No. But, Heidelberg is a German city that was virtually untouched in the World War. You can walk through its narrow medieval streets and marvel at baroque architecture that went up after the French burned down the city. It’s nestled in a valley. It has a castle overlooking it. Wiesbaden looks very rich, is well kept, and has a lot to offer in terms of stores and architecture. But, it’s a newer city. As far as I understand, it was leveled in the war and rebuilt in the 1950’s. But I don’t know anything about that. I’m just repeating what Todd told me.
  • I love our apartment. I’m not trying to be all braggyMCbraggerson, but it’s HUGE. We will probably never own a house as big as this apartment is. I love how quiet it is inside, and how the walls are so insulated that I can sit in the living room and type this blog post and not hear Todd’s movie in the room next door. I’m also excited that we’re doing this city life thing for a bit. It won’t be forever. The idea is to live it up in the center for a couple years or so, and then buy a house in whatever area of Wiesbaden we fall in love with.
  • I would say the majority of Wiesbaden’s population are Muslim.  This is genuinely interesting to me because I’ve never lived anywhere that had so many Muslims. The abundance of  burkas and head scarves catch my eye. Perhaps we’ll make more friends who are Muslim and I’ll learn more about regions I only know from the news.
  • There’s lots of natural hot springs here—throughout the city, actually. I don’t know much more about them but will learn and post more.

Okay, I’m going to stop with this but more is to come! I’m sorry for the leave of absence. And, I’m sorry for blaming my child’s immune system when it really just comes down to a lack of motivation on my part.

My blogging goals are to keep on from here, to be open and honest, and to reflect on this major life change.  I have some personal goals that I’ve set, as well, and this blog will help me to work through them.  In no particular order they are;

1.) Get super fit and look 25 again. 😉

2.) Immerse more in German culture.  Do whatever it takes–join clubs, speak German as often as possible.

3.) We’ve been in a rut.  We need to travel more, explore, be involved.  We need to get out there.

4.) I am notoriously antisocial at the schools I teach at.  I chat all day with the kids, but avoid staff rooms and raising my hand at meetings.  I want to change that.

Until next time!

Why It’s Okay to Have Pie in the Sky Syndrome

Comments 18 Standard

Sometimes I come down with Pie in the Sky Syndrome.

Right after I finished my Master’s degree I was, I’ll admit, just a bit full of myself.  I’d just completed a M.F.A. Creative Writing at the University of London, under the Poet Laureate of the country,  and graduated with distinction.  Tack on four years of prior middle school teaching experience on an army base in Europe and I thought I held the golden ticket to jobs.

All the jobs.

In my mind, people would be going out of their way to knock on my door and offer me employment—and not just in my field! Oh, no! There were all types of things I could be doing, now! Pies were flying all over the sky and all I had to do was reach out and pinch hold of the crust.

I started filling out applications with the lack of urgency a billionaire might feel if they decided to break up their luxury cruises with a fun side job for kicks. I wanted to stay in London; that much I knew. Beyond that, I was open to all types of professions as long as they paid me in lots and lots of pounds.

I applied for positions teaching literature at prestigious universities in England.  I applied to run the international department of these same universities (mainly because I thought it would be “cool to travel around the world and present the programs to students.”)

Looking over the employment options, I didn’t give much (if any) consideration to whether or not I was actually qualified.  It was all about what they could offer me.  I had a Master’s degree now–I was on fire! 

In a rush of hubris on the brink of insanity I applied to be—and this is no joke—the HEAD of the University of Liverpool.  Yeah.  I think in my heart I knew I didn’t have a chance.  But, I will say, after I filled out the initial application with misguided zest I sat with the dim worry that I could potentially be hired after all and expected to run the whole damn place.  What then?

We can cross that bridge when we get to it, I thought, and kept applying.

It only occurred to me to rethink reality a little when I didn’t hear back from a single one of the applications.  Actually, that’s not true—I landed an interview for one of the International Office gigs (i.e. the one where I’d be able to travel the world on a university’s dime, talking to students) but I didn’t get the job.  I guess my snazzy asexual business suit and high marks on a thesis about how Jonathan Safran Foer conveys trauma in Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud weren’t enough to convince them I knew the necessary ins and outs of international study.  Go figure.

Any semblance of worry I’d started to feel kicked in to high gear when my UK visa expired and I was suddenly back in Buffalo, New York, living with my parents and 4,000 plus miles away from the place I was sending out applications to.  It wasn’t beyond me that interviewing from there would be hard, and that’s a pretty important part of the job process.

In the next weeks I began to feel the pressure and launched a full-fledged job-hunting campaign that slowly downgraded from pies in the sky to crud in the mud.  I sent out an average of thirty applications a week.  Several months went by.  Crickets. My carefully crafted paperwork burned away in the silence.

Each application I sent out humbled me more and more.  My salary requirements changed.  The preferred demographics were compromised (I was suddenly willing to stay in the United States and forgo my expat dream, after all.)  The grandeur of a job title gave way to the necessity of earning a buck or two—forget pounds.

Eventually and gratefully I landed a job—back at the daycare center I’d worked at when I was eighteen years old.  I loved it there.  But, it was a far cry from where my sights were initially set.

For the remainder of my 30th year of life I slept in my childhood bedroom and worked my tail off earning minimum wage filling up Dixie cups with milk and changing fifteen diapers before and after naptime.

(Luckily, I did eventually land a part-time teaching job back in London, but it took a lot of grit and door pounding and one unfortunate interview where I’d just come in from an exceptionally hot day and sweat ran down over my forehead the whole time I answered questions.  It quickly became one of those awkward situations where the more you think about the fact you’re sweating, the more you sweat.)

A couple years later I leaped towards another Pie in the Sky.

I set out to write my first book.  And, of course, what I had in mind was not a modest first publication.  I planned, instead, to write the next New York Times bestseller, a real classic, one to be covered in American Lit classes circa right now.

Panera Bread was my office for the next few months and I guzzled Hazelnut coffee refills, ate the Fuji Apple Chicken Salad on a daily basis, and befriended the local retirees who spent their mornings there rehashing the news in an American version of the German Stammtisch.  I knew exactly what ‘their seats’ were, and they knew mine.  Heaven help whoever helped themselves to our respective booths.

Predictably my aspirations brought on a serious case of Writer’s Block.  When that subsided what came next was an onslaught of words—so many words!—and I felt deeply excited about every single one of them.

The project lasted several months.  I wrote six or seven chapters and each one was a messy sprawl of at least 60 pages in a style that eagerly and blindly mimicked the voices of all the other famous writers I was reading at the time.  (Let’s just say we see some David Foster Wallace footnotes and Jonathan Safran Foer experimentalism.  And maximalism. Lots of that.)

Well, my own assessment is that the book tanked.  I still go back and try to edit it from time to time, but I get seasick just looking at the thing.

And now I have a third Pie in the Sky story.

After I wrote the blog post about my attack, I decided it was time to do something I’ve been persuaded to do in the past but was too chicken-shit to try.  I decided to send my work out somewhere.  Like, to a real publication with hopes of my writing being, dare I say, shared with a wider audience.

My very first thought was Huffington Post.  I’ve been a fan of their ‘Voices’ section for a while, and I like the quality of the blogs posted there.

In my typical revved up style, I decided to send over my post in all its 2,500 word glory (forget the fact that most submissions that are accepted are pared down to 700 or 800 words.)

And—rather than the appropriate editor of the Voices section at HuffPost—I attached it as a link in an email message directed to Arianna Huffington, herself.  Because…why not? I figured there was nothing to lose by contacting the head honcho, herself.  Just like there’s nothing to lose by applying for a job that is well beyond one’s qualifications, experience, or overall intellectual ability.

(I could mention Donald Trump, here, but I’d never do that.)

Shortly after pressing ‘send’ I did some belated research and learned that Arianna Huffington actually left the Huffington Post to start a brand new company.  Oops! So, I hit myself a few times over my lack of ‘good to know’ knowledge and chalked it all up to an email lost in cyberspace.  I sent it out to a couple of other places, checked my email obsessively a few times, and moved on a month later.

But then this morning, after a very, very, very sleepless night due to a sick toddler with a hacking cough, I checked my email.  And who do you think I saw in my inbox?

Arianna Huffington.

She wrote me back.  THE Arianna Huffington.  The head honcho.  She wrote me back and thanked me for sharing my post.  She also let me know that she’d cc’d the HuffPost blog editor and that they’d be sending me a password so that I “can share my voice in a blog on the HuffPost site.”  She went on to tell me a little bit about her new company and even invited me to visit this pop-up store that will be open between now and January 15th.

All day I’ve been in a tizzy.  I’m tizzying over here.

On one hand, I’m not quite sure what this means.  Will my post be shared as a one-off on Huffington Post? Is the editor going to write me back? What’s with the password, thingy? How does that work?

I’ve done some reading, and from what I gather there is a new platform for the publication.  If you are a HuffPost blogger you get a username and password and have far more mobility/flexibility to share your work.  Is that what she’s saying? Am I being invited to the blogging platform of HuffPost?

I’m confused and elated.  It’s not a bad mix!

Either way, this is a new development here that feels awesome.  I’ll either have something I wrote posted (and I’m sure it could be the start of even more submissions to the web site seeing as I’ll have ‘established myself’ if having one thing published counts as ‘establishment.’) Or, I may be given a password of invitation to contribute more frequently.  This is an idea that gives me immediate Writer’s Block just thinking about it.

As of this morning I’m all-in about pies in the sky, again.  In fact, I’m going to keep going from here and probably embarrass myself and experience dead air and empty inboxes.

But, what this has shown me is that it’s always worth it.  Some pies are more attainable than others (like publication versus heading a university without experience, per se.)  What’s true for both is that there’s truly nothing to lose by going straight to the top, moving in range of the out of range or, to put it nicely, attempting to pick the nose of “this is beyond you.”

Sometimes you’re surprised with a response and validation.

I’m sure I’ll be updating you about my situation and we’ll see where it all leads.

In the meantime I’m off to the States tomorrow for two weeks and couldn’t be more excited. 🙂 P.S. I’d love to hear any of YOUR pie in the sky stories? Let’s talk pie!

On Being Unable to Reach the Fifth Stage of Grief

Comments 21 Standard

 

I felt this election in my bones.

I’ll be honest–this is the first political race that I’ve ever lost sleep over, that affected my mood, that made me feel uncontrollably combative towards the ‘other side’ even when I tried very, very hard not to. I know I’m far from alone in this.

I desperately wanted to be an activist–if we were in the States, I can guarantee I would have donned my very own coordinated pantsuit and gone door-to-door, making quite the impassioned case.

Even though I once promised myself to avoid all political talk on Facebook and stick to family pictures or light updates on the state of my being, for the past month or so I just couldn’t help myself. I poured a glass of wine as soon as I got home from work and thought, no, no, stay away, stay awayno one’s mind has ever changed from a goddamn Facebook post—but was unable to help myself.

I seriously COULD NOT stop; it felt like the only way to grab people by the shoulders from afar and shake them. You’re making a huge mistake! Click, click: Look at what he said! Look at what he did! Please, consider what he’ll do!

Yesterday when Todd woke me up with coffee and the announcement that Trump was winning, I thought he was joking. And, if so, I thought it was the least funny prank, ever. Over and over I insisted it wasn’t true until I put in my contacts and checked the news for myself.

And, yet, there it was. ‘Trump Triumphs,’ I read.

Let’s just say it wasn’t a great morning.

Continue reading

Putting My Zombie On Your Porch

Comments 10 Standard

On Halloween we had three trick-or-treaters, which means the holiday is becoming wildly popular here in Germany! (After all, that’s three more trick-or-treaters than we’ve had other years.)

I was curious about when Halloween was introduced to German culture so I looked it up and, according to Der Spiegel, celebrations began in 1991 (reason being, Carnival was canceled due to the Gulf War.) So. it’s only taken about twenty-five years for things to get rolling in our Heidelberg suburb.

Nevertheless, Todd and I were well prepared with three jumbo-sized bags of American candy bought from the commissary on base.   After all, you never can be too prepared.

When the trick-or-treaters arrived I opened up, mixing bowl filled of goodies in hand, and the kids dutifully chanted, “Suesses, sonst gibt’s Saures!” which roughly translates to, “Give me something sweet, or else you’ll get something sour!”

Continue reading

The Man Behind the Tree.

Comments 215 Standard

A man was waiting for me behind a tree.

I didn’t know this, yet, as I unlocked my bike after watching a World Cup game on a big screen outdoors at Marstallhof with friends back in 2006. I had no idea what was coming as I rode along the Neckar River and followed the curve of the bike path over to Bergheimerstrasse. It was reaching 9 p.m. and it was June, so there was still some daylight refusing the hug of encroaching nighttime.

I remember that I rode fast, and even stood up on my pedals as I crossed over a bridge—like a child—so that I could rise above my handlebars and face the wind head-on. I looked to the left, over at the distant hills, and then below the bridge where the train tracks were. I saw fluorescent lights, the clean platform, a few ICE trains like long white bullets resting on the track.

There’s so many bike rides that I forget. Even now, I ride my bike home to and from work every day and often get so lost in thought that I barely remember the journey from point A to point B.

But, I’ll never forget this particular ride.

Continue reading

Turtle Cancer

Comments 8 Standard

Last week I went to visit my doctor (Dr. Sieben, or “Seven” as it means in English) for a preemptive cancer screening.  The week prior I’d been summoned in to have blood drawn so they could test my thyroid, and this was my sit-down with the doctor to discuss the results. (They’re all about preventative health care here, and I appreciate everything about that.)

After he called me in to his office, one of the first things he asked me (after the reassurance that my results were fine and my blood pressure, may I just boast, was “perfection”) was about cancer in my family.  In other words, who had it and what type did they have, etc.

I told him about my aunt’s breast cancer and then moved on to my uncle.

“Er hat…” I hesitated, “Schildkroete gehabt.”

Even as I said Schildkroete, I knew it wasn’t the right word.  This happens a lot when at doctor’s appointments, simply because new vocabulary (in the form of symptoms or illnesses) come up all the time.

I was searching for the German word for ‘lung’ and it only occurred to me after ‘Schildkroete’ came out of my mouth that the word meant ‘thyroid.’

Continue reading

Times I Was Confused in America

Comments 15 Standard

I’ve been living in Europe, now, for the better part of sixteen years.  And yet, it was only this summer that I experienced the phenomenon of realizing I was more in tune with how things work in Germany, my second culture, than I was with how it’s done in America.

This wasn’t really the case before now.  I’m wondering what it was about this summer—I mean, I hadn’t been away from America for any longer than normal.  I’m not even immersed in German language or, let’s be honest, German society as much as I could/should be?

So, is sixteen years away from where I grew up my own personal magic expat number? Is this the specific amount of time it took me to feel more integrated into one culture than the other?

Example Number One of a Time I Was Super Confused in America

Continue reading