Like so many women, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat Pray Love, with a tinge of jealousy. I didn’t envy her the pain of a divorce (I’ve been happily married for 14 years and have two wonderful children), but spending a year wandering the globe trying to “find yourself”? What a luxury!
Eat Pray Love, the film, starring Julia Roberts, comes out on August 13. And now I find myself on my own Eat Pray Love adventure, living in Europe for 13 months with the opportunity to reinvent myself and possibly find a new career path. Since I will celebrate my fortieth birthday in the fall, living as an expat couldn’t have come at a better time. I plan to make the most of it.
For the past 39 years, my life has been fulfilling, if perhaps a little too predictable—graduating from college, getting married, having kids, buying and renovating a house, and teaching kindergarten. I’m sure my life is similar to many other women my age—a great life, following a conventional path, but wondering at times, is that all there is?
Then last November, my husband, Tim, decided he was bored with his job and wanted to try something different. A new company would be building a factory in our area to manufacture computer chips. Many of those new hires would need to spend a year in Dresden, Germany, the company’s headquarters.
At the time, it seemed like a long shot. And living near Saratoga where long shots rarely pay off, I didn’t spend much time thinking about Tim’s proposal. Then in January, he called me at work to give me the news—we were moving! Truly, it was a “be careful what you wish for moment.” When I told a fellow teacher my news, I cried.
My children—Riley, 7, and Maggie, 5—were more practical. Not yet out of grade school, Riley is already a worldly young man. Proficient on the computer, he has his own company producing videos for his friends. I knew a year abroad would be an incredible learning experience for him. Maggie’s only question was: “Can I bring 5 dresses?” Umm, yeah, I thought, you can bring like 20!
Maggie is the complete opposite of Riley. While Riley is quiet and reserved, Maggie is a whirlwind of energy and is very social. She would soak up this adventure. I started to get excited about the changes our family would go through together.
The initial euphoria passed and then it was time to make hard decisions. Even though Tim needed to move to Dresden immediately, we decided the kids and I would stay to finish out the school year. I missed Tim so much during that time, but I learned that if we could get through that separation, then we really could get through anything.
Next up—where to live? Thanks to Tim’s new company, I was able to visit Dresden for a week. Valentina, the company’s relocation person, showed us apartments and acted as translator. We found the perfect one, near the Elbe River with its bike and walk path, a back yard (yes, we were taking our Boston terrier, Toga), and, with a beer garden abutting our property, giving us an easy way to wander in. We saw ourselves having date nights there! And the landlord told us that it closed at 10, so we didn’t have to worry about late noises. It was settled. We had found our home.
While I was back in the U.S. with the kids, Tim had a full schedule—learning a new job and getting our apartment ready. There were lots of details to take care of, both in Germany and in the U.S.—papers for the dog, physicals for Riley and Maggie, passports. Despite the six-hour time difference, we used Skype each night to coordinate and catch up.
I met with my school’s superintendent, who approved a year-long leave of absence. The only downside was not knowing whether I would return to the same school, the one my children attended. The next best thing to being a stay at home mom, is being able to work where my kids go to school. I knew I was very lucky. BUT, I convinced myself that a year off in Europe was so worth it. Yup, it had to be. Everything happens for a reason, right?
Since our apartment in Germany was already furnished, we didn’t need to ship furniture. So packing up was relatively easy—clothes, some toys, and a lot a lot of books, over 600! Since Maggie is in first grade and learning to read, she would need books. We also shipped lots of over the counter medicine, in scarce supply in Germany. I went to BJ’s and spent almost $300 on medicine. Tim later told me one of his co-workers had shipped $800 worth of medicine. I went to Target the next day and bought more, just in case.
About four years ago, I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease (allergy to wheat and gluten) and knew that buying food when you can’t read food labels or dining out when you can’t speak the language could be a major obstacle. (Even at home, I often have trouble explaining Celiac Disease to friends and other people I meet). While some grocery stores and restaurants in the U.S. now regularly feature gluten-free products, I wasn’t sure what I would find in Germany, so I needed to take some food. I also have a very severe tree nut allergy, and wouldn’t be able to drink the beer since barley has wheat. I would be afraid to eat the chocolate since it might have nuts, and no pretzels or bread for me!
The week before we moved was a very busy time for us. Family and friends stopped in to say goodbye, we continued to pack, and we brought Toga to get his certificates, something that needed to be done seven days prior to the move. My best friend put together a surprise party, and two moms from Riley’s class got together and threw a going away party for both children. Their thoughtfulness touched me. But then I wondered would we be forgotten? For a year, life would go on without us. Would moving back bring with it another adjustment?
The night before we moved, my parents and my sister, Marijo, came over for dinner and a campfire. As I sat in the circle facing my family, I wondered if everything would be all right without me. My mom is a two-time breast cancer survivor…hopefully she’ll stay that way while I’m gone. And looking at my children, I grew a little sad knowing that a whole year would be taken from my family, and that the next time they would see the kids, how different they would be. My parents hate to fly, even though I’m still hoping they will make the trip. My sister has plans to fly over. I’m already looking forward to her visit.
The next morning we were sad, not only saying goodbye to all the people we would miss, but also to our 1906 Victorian house that we have been fixing up for several years. I walked through each room, saying a silent goodbye. Our good friend, Kellie, will be living in our house while we are gone, so I know it will be in good hands.
Checking in at the airport took longer than we had expected and we almost missed our first flight. Poor Toga…we gave him sleepy medication, and he was so out of it. The kids were excited and handled the trip well. Traveling with two kids and a dog would put anyone over the edge, but our 10-plus hour trip went well. We had three flights, and all were on time. When we arrived in Dresden at 11a.m. the following day, we were relieved to be on solid ground again.
While we were walking to claim our baggage, a man asked about my dog. That encounter would be the first of many exchanges with someone speaking German. I listened to the people near me, and could not understand what anyone was saying. Would I grow insane from not understanding the language? I looked all around me…German advertisements, German signs—none that I could read. Spending a year in Germany, would I return being able to speak the language? Something to think about.
Tired and groggy, we got a taxi and made another quiet ride to our new European flat. Tim was in the front seat with the driver, feeling less stressed since we made it, I’m sure. Maggie fell asleep. Toga our dog was still heavily medicated. Riley was excitedly looking out the window and asking, “Are we there yet?” every minute or so. And I was feeling so much during that ride…excited, nervous, scared.
My European adventure was beginning. It was a year off from my old life. It was a year to explore the world and to learn about cultures. To learn about other countries and other people from all around Europe. Most importantly, to learn about myself again. Since getting married, having children, and being a teacher, I have lost a piece of my identity. Now I was going to figure out who I am again. Not Mom, or Mrs. Walz. But Stacey, the 39 year-old woman, an expat living in Germany for one year!
I got out of the taxi, looked at the apartment, then gazed at my family. Here we are. My journey starts now…
Stacey Walz will be writing about her year in Europe, contributing travel articles and her thoughts on her own Eat Pray Love journey.
Photo at top by Riley Walz.