The next day, the departmental secretary picked me on time, as promised. I met my supervisor, who in turn introduced me to the rest of the department. She told me about a cake and coffee party later in the day to welcome me. The first thing I noticed was being the only non-German, non-White member in the department. Everyone spoke English, but their English is quite different. It sounds cute in a way, because people often pause to think and use the right word. The people in my department walk to the mensa (cafeteria) every day to have lunch together. Later in the afternoon, people take a tea/coffee break and chat over cookies. People sit and eat, and don’t grab a sandwich or gobble or nibble or eat alone in their office, unless there are deadlines. Someone bought me lunch the first day, since it was cheaper buying it using a card. At the mensa, thousands of people from the campus sat together and ate. Everyone was running around to make sure I was comfortable. Later that day, someone brought me a piece of plum cake, someone made me tea, and everyone came and introduced themselves, telling me how excited they are to have me here.
I met my adviser’s secretary later that day, who was soon to become an important person in my life. She gave me bus maps and printouts of bus schedules to and from home. Later that day, she took me to the grocery store and helped me buy milk, eggs, fruits and some vegetables. My US debit card was not working for mysterious reasons, and she loaned me a few hundred euros. Since I could only carry so much without a car, my first buy in Germany were a liter of milk, one dozen eggs, four bananas, three potatoes, and three onions. From there, she rode the bus with me, and walked me to my home, so that I have no difficulty taking the bus on my own. Since I was so new in this country, I was constantly comparing Germany with the US. If the previous night was about how spacious US is and how cramped Germany felt, today was about how helpful the Germans are. I could never imagine a departmental secretary in the US taking me grocery shopping and riding the bus with me after work. The next day, she once again drove me to the International Center, the city hall (everyone new in town need to register there), and to three different banks to help me open an account (you need a prior appointment with a bank to open an account, and we did not know that). Knowing that I am having difficulties accessing money, she even arranged to pay me my salary in advance. Three days in the country and I was to get my first paycheck. I was filled with gratitude. Not too long ago, someone had deducted two days of my salary because I needed to go to Houston to renew my passport, and they refused to let me work on the weekends to make up for lost time. I hope that they are richer, now that they have my two days of salary. Perhaps the law of conservation of kindness says that there is infinite kindness in this world, and when someone has been unkind to you, you will soon meet someone who will go out of their way to be kind.
I know that my stay in Germany is going to be very different from my life before this, and there is no point comparing things. Last August, I was driving all over the US, visiting every place my heart desired. And now, I am so far away, farther than a phone call or a Whatsapp message. I have spent six months of my life without a car or a cell phone connection. Most of my close friends are now people from the previous chapter of my life. Yes, Germany does not feel like the US. It is smaller and cramped, and I struggle to move freely in my room without hitting my knees here and there, because I have managed to acquire a lot of clothes in these few years, a lot definitely by non-US standards. The laundry machines are one-fourth the size and equally expensive, and I am forced to do laundry more frequently. I terribly miss Chipotle and Netflix and driving to national parks and proudly showing off my national park pass. Life feels like living in a foreign movie without subtitles. I ache to go back to the US every day, not as a tourist, but with gainful employment. I don’t even know how many light years I am away from getting a faculty job. I have hundreds of friends in that country, and now, I cannot even pick up a phone and hear their voice, or show up at their place Friday night. The German keyboard is different, with the Y and the Z interchanged, and with many other new keys that confuse me every day.
However now, I can watch the sunrise from my room every day, and take long walks by the water, watching the huge ships that arrive from Scandinavia. The Bainbridge island ferries are tiny compared to these ships. I can travel to dozens of European countries without needing a visa. Theoretically, I can have breakfast in Germany, lunch in Denmark, and dinner in Sweden. I can learn German, learn to live on less, and live a more active life without a car. I can walk and bike (we have dedicated bike lanes everywhere) and take the train more frequently. I can learn the map of Germany, and get used to the different units of measurements, buying milk in liters and measuring lengths in meters. I can revel in glory that now I have worked in three different continents. I can enjoy eating in proper china, and never use disposable plates and spoons (disposable plates and spoons are a no-no here). Most importantly, I can learn to stop looking back to see what I don’t have, and instead, look ahead to see the whole new world that awaits me.
Honestly, I did not choose this life. This life chose me. This job chose me. My life is not perfect here. But I am trying my best. Because no matter where I am, I choose to be happy, productive, and thankful for this brand new chapter of my life.