It is the afternoon of June 29, 2011 and I’m standing in my vacant German flat. The movers left just minutes earlier with our countless boxes; ready to be shipped back to the U.S. My kids are going room to room, amazed that the apartment is empty and full of echoes. My husband is in the kitchen, cleaning our tiny refrigerator. And I am fighting back tears, on the balcony. How did a year go by so fast? Memories flash in my mind of all my favorite moments: Walking through the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, riding a mule up Santorini in Greece, buying jewelry on the Charles Bridge in Prague, hiking in Cinque Terre in Italy, laying on a beach in Spain, ice skating in Vienna, driving through the Alps, zip-lining across the Indian Ocean in Singapore, playing with the wild monkeys in Gibraltar, seeing Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower, amazed in magical Venice, walking the narrow alleyways of a dozen walled cities we had visited. So many memories are flooding through me. The tears are hard to fight back. They stream down my face.
My husband, Tim, joins me on the balcony, and he whispers to me, “Some people are only given a week or two in Europe. We were lucky to have a year here.” I know he is right. I step back into the apartment and more memories are flooding through me: the kids sharing a bedroom, Maggie playing with her Barbies and always shutting the door so she could have privacy, our little kitchen and the conversations we had each night about our days, the little laundry room, with the smallest washer and dryer that I’ll probably ever see, the high ceilings and molding throughout the apartment. It’s even going to be sad leaving our apartment. Much smaller than the house we own back in our hometown in Upstate New York, it was cozy.
“We are going to be late,” my husband says. I’m late for my own party. I organized a get together at a biergarten to say goodbye to all my friends. We quietly leave the apartment that we lived in for one year. I feel as though this is my season finale to a part of my life. I try to take a mental picture of the rooms we are leaving behind, and then the city we are leaving behind as we drive quietly through the streets of Dresden, all four of us heavily in thought. I walk into the biergarten, with red puffy eyes. One of my friends hugs me right away and tells me that it looks like I might need a hug. I am mentally and physically out of sorts. We eat and drink at the biergarten. Soon, I relax with my friends and my old laughing self returns. My expat friends are special. Even though we all have known each other for only one year, we grew tight. We became a family here in the foreign country we live in.
With Tim’s new job, we had to move to Dresden, Germany in July 2010. At first, I was a little nervous about the move. But once I arrived, I was in awe. I loved living in a busy European city. I fell in love with the architecture, the history, the culture. I became obsessed with traveling, even going to Paris, Vienna and Spain with just the kids, since Tim was busy at work. We traveled to 13 countries, and in each of those countries, I learned so much about the world and myself. I learned the hardships that surrounded World War II firsthand, since Dresden was one of the German cities that was bombed and then, rebuilt. I talked to friends who had relatives that were jailed, after trying to escape East Germany over the Berlin Wall. I visited museums that housed king and queen jewels from England and Saxony. I visited art museums and saw famous paintings. I walked through the streets of Istanbul, and heard prayer chants coming from the mosques. I feel in love with the Greek, Turkish, Italian and Spanish cultures and how friendly they all are. While in Amsterdam, I couldn’t believe all the bikes I saw, and I was inspired by how people got around. In Belgium outside of Foy, we saw actual foxholes from WW2. I stared up at countless European squares, and fell in love with all of them.
And now, coming back to the United States, I worried about my transition. I wasn’t ready to return, but yet, it was time. I still had so many other places to visit, but our year abroad was over. Since I knew coming back to the U.S. would be difficult for me, I began to educate myself on the process of coming home. I read lots of books about expats returning to their home countries and I signed up for a class at my children’s international school on the same topic. I was told that it was normal to go through a “depression” period. Many of my expat friends were moving back to the same area as my hometown, since my husband’s work was based there. I knew that we would have each other. Another thing I learned is that not everyone wants to hear about your adventures as an expat living in another country. I have been careful to tell people about my year, only when they ask. My friends here have been wonderful, even throwing me a Welcome Home party, inviting both New York friends and expat friends who just moved to the area. I feared that in a year, my friends wouldn’t be able to relate to me anymore. In some ways, it feels like I never moved away.
On July 1, 2011, we left Germany. Our two kids and Boston Terrier dog boarded the plane that morning. I was still very sad. But I thought of Tim’s words, and knew I was lucky to be bringing home a year full of memories. Once we landed in Philadelphia, I experienced my first reverse cultural shock. The airport was filled with disorganized chaos; people talking loudly, airport employees shouting at the travelers. While there, I was “yelled at” two times. Both times, for standing where I wasn’t supposed to be standing. I was left thinking, is it like this all the time? Germany is such a quiet country. Or maybe people were yelling at me, and because of the language barrier, I never noticed it?
We stayed in a local hotel in our hometown, while we planned to get our house ready. We left our house with a friend to live in during our year, and we were delighted that she left the house the cleanest I have ever seen it. But, it was still nice to be in the hotel. Mentally, I was still thinking I was on vacation.
I drove my car for the first time in a year. Europeans use public transportation, bikes, and walk. After all, gasoline is well over $6 a gallon in Europe. During my year in Germany, I used the trams and trains everyday. I walked more. Living back in the U.S., I have noticed that the only place I walk to now is my car. I have to be more conscious to be active. In Europe, being active is just part of life. Here, you have to make it part of your life.
American grocery stores are a mixed blessing. I love that I can totally read what I am buying now. But, sometimes I feel like I have ADHD in the stores, with all the choices of any given product. Do we really need 20 different mustard brands?
I really miss the architecture in Europe. There’s nothing like seeing old castles, cobblestone streets, elaborately designed buildings. Here, I notice shopping plazas, that were built in a hurry and in haste, without any regard to the buildings around them. In Europe, you can look down a street, and all the buildings seem to flow into one another. I think I miss the architecture the most.
Our two children, Riley, 8, and Maggie, 6, are adapting to our home country too. Riley is having the harder adjustment. He thrived at the international school that they both attended. He broke out of his shell, and became more confident, even speaking at several school assemblies for a fundraiser that he organized. He fell in love with the trams and trains, and now back in our small upstate New York town, there aren’t as many options for public transportation. Maggie had a harder adjustment with our move to Germany. Even though the school’s instruction was in English, Maggie was the only native English-speaking girl in her class. The girls in her class would speak German at recess and lunch, often making Maggie feel like the outsider. Her best friend was a Japanese girl, who spoke neither English nor German. The two of them would play Dog, Cat, and Tag, and their friendship worked. Maggie is happy to be back home, to see all of her friends. Both of our kids missed our family in New York, and it was a joyous reunion at the Albany Airport, after not seeing my parents for the entire year. I know that we will all be adjusting to this “reverse cultural shock.”
Hopefully, my children will remember their special year of traveling throughout Europe. Pictures of our year grace our walls. One of our bathrooms is a “Paris” theme. Riley’s bedroom is a “Tram” theme, and Maggie chose to change her room to a “Europe/Shoe” theme. She fell in love with high heel shoes while we lived in the city. We all want to keep our memories alive. Maggie collected a doll in each country we visited, Riley collected a tram/subway/bus model, and I collected pottery. We have prints of famous paintings we have seen, rocks from the Baltic Sea, sea glass from Greece, Polish pottery, a Turkish rug, shoes from Paris, tulip bulbs from Amsterdam, and a purse from Italy. Our European treasures.
In the three short weeks I have been back in the United States, I am already applying what I have learned in Europe to my life here. I am an organic shopper now. I shop at Farmer’s Markets. I no longer wear my bathing suit that looks like a dress. I am embracing my body. I am living my life more simply: I don’t need a big car or that big house. I’m happy with my 1906 village house. I listen to NPR all the time, and find that I still need to keep up with world events. I am more conscious of international people around me, and I want to be extra kind to them, since I know what it’s like to sometimes feel lost in a foreign country. But the simple comforts of home I have missed: Target, ice cubes in drinks, free-refills in restaurants, air conditioning, screens in my windows, English bookstores, reading the Sunday newspaper, being able to read environmental print, not paying for public restrooms (I once paid 3 euros for a bathroom in Florence), my garden and my lawn for my dog to lazily lie on. Truly, I have been lucky to have experienced both European and American cultures, on both sides of the world.
While in Germany, my theme song was “Good Life” by One Republic. It was a hit in Europe last winter, and now the song is creeping up the Top 40 here in the States. I find it ironic that the song followed me back to New York. I have to say that I had the Good Life in Europe, but the Good Life is continuing for me, right here in New York.
Stacey Walz wrote about her Eat Pray Love year living in Germany for Woman Around Town. To access her other stories, click on her byline.