5 business trips (Hungary, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, London and Dubai), 3 friends visiting from overseas and my family doing their annual visit. I also travelled privately to see friends in Stuttgart and Zweibrücken, and explored Spain with my family. This past year has been busy, but still feels mundane when I look back. Its full of confusing paradoxes.
Unsexy as it sounds, I am not sure I really do enjoy travel. The last 2 times I travelled for work, I was confronted with racist, sexist and downright risky experiences that have probably resulted in my current crises of confidence. It is eating into my state of feeling safe, whether at home or work, in Bonn or abroad.
When I am at “home” in Bonn, its been unnerving settling into this “lifestyle”. I feel the constant pull of the desire to be social, yet I like my own company and many times stay in rather than go out. On one hand I enjoy having a routine, a regular café and gym to go to, a swimming pool next door and a Turkish store around the corner. On the other hand, I miss spontaneity and casual hangs at home with friends or neighbours. I miss the social element of going to the gym. The frigidity of German life, especially in winter, is something that I, after 5 years of being here, still cannot really get accustomed to. Its difficult for me, who comes from a culture that’s generally quite chatty and warm, to deal with sudden outbursts of irritability from the average German public or especially a service person. I find myself wondering why people are so impatient and rude at the slightest inconvenience? Or are they so back home too, and I have lost that in nostalgia? I do doubt that though, and I notice and love the rare random friendly interactions between strangers here – in the train, on the streets or in supermarkets. I love it when I see babies or dogs bringing strangers together, if only for a second. The reason I love Karneval is because this is the one time in the year that Germany feels friendly and the Germans approachable. The other extreme which is daily life is being snapped at by a taxi driver who doesn’t want to take a card payment rather than cash. Instead of explaining politely that he loses money for surcharge, he snaps at you like its your job to know the intricacies of his job payment. Of course, people can be rude anywhere, but it seems to be culturally and socially acceptable to be rude in Germany. And for someone who can absolutely say no when required, but will actively rehearse, reason, find excuses and try to “adjust” before saying no (but sorry and I really hope you understand), its difficult to instantly respond to random outbursts of annoyance.
So I retreat into a shell. I bill at the self check-out counter where I don’t have to interact with anyone. I avoid asking strangers for help or clarification, I make do with what I know and hope for the best. At restaurants I get anxious before ordering because wait staff are also often impatient, bordering on unfriendly. I just turned 31 and I asked myself “is this all my life is supposed to be?” Dark, I know, and kind of dramatic as well. I don’t really have the answer, maybe it lies in my Vitamin D tablets. Perhaps its just a part of being an adult, where vacillating between angst and unquestioning positivity are replaced by a duller reality.
While I am wary of wrapping myself in an “expat bubble”, I am also exhausted from trying to make an effort to understand, to fit in, to explain myself, to adapt. I see Germans around me who are very outgoing. In spite of being periodically rebuffed, many times I see their friendliness pay off. But as an inherently shy-in-the-beginning-until-you-get-to-know-me person, I can’t find the courage to take that chance, place that smile on my face and try to “break the ice” in a foreign language.
It all sounds very negative, but this is where I am at in my “integration process”. After making a lot of investment trying to fit in, I am now awaiting the returns. I realise that as an expat (and a generally complex person who has lived in 6 cities so far), I can’t expect to ever feel truly at home again anywhere in the world. But after a year of living here, it would be nice to feel at least a familiar sense of coming back to a favourite friend’s parents’ house, when I enter the Hauptbahnhof in Bonn. I tell myself that while I need to build higher walls and to “toughen up”, I can also allow myself kindness and time to retreat into a safe space until its sunny and warm to emerge again. I sense I should be doing something a little differently, but I can’t quite put my finger on what. This year, for the first time, I stay in on Karneval. Because the last time I partied in a public space it did not end well. Karneval and its gaiety will come again next year, and I hope to be ready for it in full costume to receive it then. For now, Kölle Alaaf?