The Metamorphosis Restyled: A Newly Single Man

So your wife left you, huh? You poor thing! Here, let’s dry those tears and get you started on the path to feeling better… and you know what that means: it’s makeover time.

Don’t worry, this won’t hurt. In fact, if you’re like most men, you’ll come out of this break-up relatively unscathed. And if you follow these steps, you’ll find an ersatz wifey to clean up after your messes in no time.*

  1. The makeover can’t begin until you finally reach the realization that she’s gone. To get to that point, you have to spend a weekend getting smashing drunk and telling everyone you encounter what a terrible, horrible, awful bitch you were married to. It’s not attractive, but: Camaraderie. It’ll come in handy.
  2. Use this camaraderie to ask all your friends if they know any nice girls. Realize everyone you know is still married. Download Tinder “just to see what’s out there.” Take a lot of selfies in poorly lit places and swipe right on every picture. Just in case.
  3. While you’re still not really “feeling it” — still sleeping on your friend’s couch because you trust that at any moment, she’ll let you back in — stop taking care of yourself. Spend all your free time either at work or browsing Tumblr to get ideas on what men should look like nowadays.
  4. Stop cutting your hair.
  5. Grow out your facial hair. Beards and man buns are in, you know, and all that money you’ll save on hair cuts you can invest elsewhere.
  6. Like in sneakers. Nike Frees. The brighter and more colorful, the better.
  7. And jeans. Dark wash. Just a smidgen too big.
  8. And white Hanes T-shirts and a couple of button-downs. If you’re the Oxford type at work, make these “casual” shirts the flannel variety.
  9. Join a rock climbing gym, where you will go and hang out on the weekends once you discover that alcohol isn’t all it’s cracked up to be now that you’re middle-aged.
  10. Realize that shit, you’re middle-aged. Dial down the age limit on Tinder. Swipe right but never ever contact anyone.
  11. Get a tattoo. A sleeve.
  12. Start rolling up the sleeves on your flannel to show off your tattoos.
  13. Let your beard grow as long as you can. Learn how to use hair gel and beard oil.
  14. Find ways to show off the abs and biceps you’ve got now that you’re climbing. Lift up the hem of your Hanes to wipe the sweat off your brow. Switch out your gym Tees for tank tops. Be confident in your belief that someone somewhere has got to be paying attention to you.
  15. Start drinking green juice and eating chia seeds and ordering the vegan option extra loudly in every restaurant you go to.
  16. Learn guitar. Or Tango. Or basket weaving. Whatever it is that attracts the ladies nowadays.
  17. Hit on all your female co-workers. And babysitters. Basically any woman who crosses your path. One of them will say yes.
  18. After she says yes, take her to her place. If you can, take pictures. On your phone. Make sure your ex can discover them, sit back and wait for the lawyer’s papers.
  19. Pack up all your flannels, say goodbye to your friend and his uber-annoyed wife, and move directly from their couch to your new girlfriend’s bed.
  20. Complain to everyone about how your ex keeps asking for alimony. Tell your new girl how terrible your ex was and how you had never ever done anything to deserve her insane bitchiness. Beg for sympathy without ever taking any responsibility. Bathe in it. Sympathetic righteousness gives a glow unlike any other.
  21. With all that money you’re saving by living off your new girlfriend, buy a bike. Not just any bike. A lightweight fixxie. White. With thin tires and no gears that costs about the same as a car.
  22. Delete Tinder. Neglect Tumblr.
  23. Shave.
  24. Get a hair cut.
  25. Throw away the flannels.
  26. Get a new pair of Nike Frees, this time black.
  27. Cancel the rock climbing gym. You never have time for that anymore anyway.
  28. Order a big, fat juicy steak. And a liter of beer. Now that you’re partnered up, realize your vanity really was taking up a lot of time and energy that you’d rather expend doing other things. Like planning exotic vacations with your new girl.
  29. Slip back into the old routine of being taken care of. Leave your laundry everywhere. Show up late for dinner. Remind your new girl how much you hated it when your ex nagged.

Congratulations, you’ve come full circle. You’re the same old asshole your ex left. This time, though, don’t fuck it up.

*Though not based on my own personal experience, 6 of 6 new divorcees I have met in the last year have gone through exactly this process. I can tell you: it works. Unfortunately.

On Broken German Schools and Hellish PTA Meetings

As all of my Twitter followers know, Diva started school here last month and so that means I have had near-weekly parents’ nights since mid-August. I’m already a pro at these from being a part of a parents’-run kindergarten and for some reason I thought I’d get through elementary school without another wasted Wednesday night bickering about whose talented kid isn’t being given enough support. I was wrong. Because in Germany, middle-class parents seem to have nothing else better to do with their time and schools here don’t just run themselves. And based on my recent experiences at these meetings, those two sentiments are severe understatements.

Die Zeit took a frightening, in-depth look at the poor state of German schools and I gotta say, wow. Just wow. I chose to educate Diva in a public school because I believe in public school education. I chose to educate her here in Germany because although they are absolutely opposed to gifted & talented programs (a topic for another day), the students who go through university preparation in Germany are much better educated than most Americans in urban areas. I had never considered the state of the schools.

We pay a lot of taxes here in Germany, with billions of our Euros going to unfinished construction projects — like BER or the Cologne Opera House or the goddamned U-Bahn that was supposed to be open in time for the World Cup held in Germany in 2006 and which is maybe finally going to open in December(!). From the looks of these schools, though, not a penny of those taxes is going to school buildings. Diva’s school, though nice, hasn’t been painted since the 1970s and to get to the bathrooms, the kids have to run outside even in winter to an unheated addition. Talk about freezing your bottom. But she is lucky. At least her gym wasn’t condemned, as two in Cologne were this summer. And her school is too small to be housing refugees, as other gyms in Cologne are doing at the moment.

Because of the sorry state of the school system in Germany, Diva’s school now has a very very active PTA, committed to ensuring that the little school children have everything their little hearts desire. I scoffed at this at first, until I learned that without the PTA, there would be no toilet paper in the bathrooms, nor would a cleaning lady be there all day every day to make sure the kids feel safe enough to freeze their little bottoms off in the unheated outdoor toilets. I mean, it could be worse; she could be in one of the state-of-the-art schools that my former employers, an architecture company, built in Wisconsin with bulletproof doors and an alarm system that allowed teachers to lockdown their kids in the classroom in case a gunman walked in. Pick and choose, I guess.

Thing is, though, that for this cleaning lady to come every day, our PTA feels the need to send home a note every month reminding us that we are not good parents unless we contribute to the fund to pay her; we just got another passive-aggressive note reminding us that because some of us aren’t paying, all the kids may soon suffer the consequences of having no toilet paper in the bathrooms. Really people? Really? Where is the principal or the custodian? Why are we as parents having to handle this?

Well, funny I should ask: on Friday we got a note from the principal saying he’s leaving the school and due to a shortage of headmasters in the area, it’s unlikely he’ll be replaced and so we, as parents, have to step up. We have already had four parents’ nights meetings since mid-August and now we’ll be having more, to see who can pick up what slack while the city thinks about whether or not it can hire a new headmaster. Anybody who has been following the Cologne election fiasco knows just how laughable this idea is. Cologne’s bureaucrats can’t even print a stupid election ballot correctly and have to keep pushing the election date for our mayor back; why would this headmaster of a teeny-tiny school be of any importance to these incompetent beamter?

I could very easily slide into the role of PTA coordinator/headmaster if I wanted to and I could get shit done. Organization and leadership skills are not my competencies. People skills are not my competency. And yet, I could do this.

Except as I am learning from these PTA meetings, my way of doing things is not the preferred way of doing things. Instead of asking a translator to come to speak with the parents of the refugee boy in class who’s having difficulties, the preferred method of the PTA is to shout at the refugee parents in a mix of German and English and hope they get they hint that their kid needs to stop borrowing the other kids’ school supplies without asking (they don’t understand a word).  Instead of asking for the toilet paper fund to be paid in advance for the entire school year, we’d rather have the teachers collect 1.50 Euro from each student once a month and waste everybody’s time by sending obnoxious letters home.

Ok, fine.  I didn’t want to run for PTA President anyway. But when these meetings are not optional, do we really need to waste a half hour of my life getting lectured on how bloody important the Carneval culture is to our school and how we have to positively absolutely immediately get started on our kids’ Carneval costume planning right now?

Man, it’s going to be a long four years. Please tell me the private schools aren’t any better or I might just ship Diva off to one…. at least so I can enjoy my one kid-free evening a week by not thinking about kid things.

On Feeling Helpless vs. Feeling Hopeless

I don’t talk about my work much here for a couple of reasons. Even most of my close friends are clueless about what I do and I like it that way most of the time. People who talk about their work are boring. And my work, although exciting sometimes, can also sometimes put me to sleep while I’m doing it. But to understand this post, you need to understand two things: I write for a living but I’m not a journalist, though the Kunstler Sozial Kasse has pigeonholed me as one. After having a loss of faith in my abilities as a writer a few years ago, I also started studying international human rights law. I thought that by becoming an expert on a topic that really affects me emotionally, I could maybe regain my faith in myself as a writer. Because I wanted to write stories that rose people’s awareness, changed people’s minds, and I felt like I needed to have the basic background information to do that.

I’m not so naive anymore.

For years I tried to make a living as a person writing on human rights issues. I’ve offered to write and edit reports, to write magazine features, to cover important conventions on transitional justice. And though some organizations and magazines have taken me up on these offers, for the most part, no one is willing to pay for my words or for the therapy I need regularly to deal with nightmares from some of the stories that I’ve heard. So I’ve had to turn to corporate communications to pay the bills, writing about fashion designers and computer programs and a million other things that I could give two fucks about. A waste of my time and expertise and talent, I’m told, but talent doesn’t pay the bills. It’s a messed up world when I can get paid more to write about clothing than about an Afghan woman struggling to get an education. And I don’t know if that’s the editor’s or the reader’s or the advertiser’s decision, I just know that it’s a position that’s conflicting to be in. Do what I love and feel is good or pay my rent and provide my daughter with a better life than the one I had as a kid?

These internal struggles that I’ve had for years become more and less acute depending on what I know and hear about happening in the world and most of the time, when it’s acute, it feels so bad because I feel helpless. Like I can’t do anything and whatever I do do, it won’t ever be enough.

When we flew into Lebanon at the start of the Syrian civil war, I was warned strictly against going outside the areas we were approved to be in. That meant no Bakaa Valley, no refugee camps, no Tripoli. I was not there for work but I listed online as a journalist, which could have meant trouble (as most English language journos in Germany know about from the Michael Scott Moore kidnapping case), and I had my daughter with me, and so, for the most part, I obeyed. We were there for a wedding and although I didn’t know this at the time, the bride came from one of the wealthiest families in the area. It wasn’t until I arrived and we were whisked away by their chauffeur that I realized how conspicuous our presence would be; we were told thereafter to be extremely careful so as not to be kidnapped. I got chauffeured around in a Mercedes, taken to luxurious Mediterranean beach resorts that were carved into the middle of banana plantations, places that required driving through Army checkpoints that left our driver a crying mess and through some of the poorest ghettos I have ever witnessed, to reach. We drove by the Holiday Inn on the Green Line that still bears the marks of decades-ago shelling and got rerouted because a crater from a car bomb just a few weeks earlier had made the road impassable. Never have I been so aware of the privilege I experienced through accident of birth and acquaintance. I may have grown up poor but I have never experienced poverty like this. I wasn’t naive enough to think that getting out of the car and handing out dollar bills or sweets and treats would do anything but ease my own mind about the poverty I was witnessing but what could I do? I felt totally helpless, a feeling that has ebbed and wained my entire life but which has, since then, not receded.

When I got back to Germany, I set out to write about these experiences. If editors didn’t want to buy the story about the reconstruction after the ethnic cleansing of my driver’s village (they didn’t), then maybe they would buy a story about six talented fashion designers from Beirut (they didn’t). They’ll publish 500 trend pieces on Paris Fashion Week but nope, sorry, not enough room for Lebanon. It’s okay. I already knew that. Words aren’t powerful in the face of disinterest. They aren’t the vehicles for positive change or awareness bringing that my grad school professors had tried convincing me they were.

Which is why what happened across Europe this week was so startling to me. I’ve been following the Syrian Civil War for five years now, been an expert on Afghanistan for seven. No one has given a shit for all these years. We have seen pictures of dead people in the Mediterranean for at least two years now and no one flinched. I was at a conference this summer which specifically addressed these wars and their consequences and watched Middle East experts begging for press and the world’s attention. Little came. I sat through panels addressing how the xenophobia and racism in the Balkans is once again reaching a boiling point, with one panelist saying the unsteady peace won’t last much longer, while for months at least, Balkans minorities keep turning up in Germany begging for asylum only to be deported quickly. I still haven’t read or heard about that in the media. I had a conversation with an expert on the to-remain-nameless-because-of-Google group currently rampaging across the former Mesopotamia that made me literally vomit and when I left this conference, for the first time in a while, I realized that the feeling of helplessness that I had when deciding to study human rights law has now shifted towards complete and utter hopelessness. I don’t want to be as disenchanted as this last expert, a former war reporter, is; his take on the world is that human beings are awful creatures undeserving of redemption. I don’t know how you can live with that kind of world view and yet I can absolutely understand based on his stories why he would say that.

For a second this week, my faith in humanity returned. Seeing some of those pictures brought tears to my eyes. I felt less hopeless and back to feeling merely helpless. Maybe that’s a start, I don’t know. It’s going to take a lot more weeks and months and years to reverse that last feeling and I’m hoping to continue to see this rising tide of immigration turn into a sea of positive change.  I’m trying not to be cynical about it. I’m trying hard not to make this about me. But I’m still a very long way from saying, as Liv Hambrett quite eloquently put it, that I am proud. Don’t get me wrong. What’s happening on the civilian level on the ground in Germany is wonderful and admirable. But as the saying in the development world goes, good intentions are not enough. I can’t wait to see the permanent change brought on by these actions. That’s the notion giving me hope at the moment.

On Raising a Third Culture Kid in a Xenophobic World

A few weeks back, while waiting in line with Diva for a boat ride on a sweltering hot day, a man cut in front of me and when I complained he told me to go back to where I came from.

“Verstehst du kein Deutsch?” he said, even though I had vocalized my complaint in German. I continued to argue with him, telling him how appalling I found his behavior, arguing loudly enough that two gentlemen nearby understood what was going on and stepped in to tell him he was out of line. But he didn’t relent. “Verstehst du kein Deutsch?” he spit at me again before bullying his way through to the front.

And I had to wonder: was it my accent? Or was he saying that I clearly didn’t understand what it means to be Deutsch? That even if I could understand the words I would never truly versteh Deutsch because if I did, I would understand that people here can act like entitled pricks and I should just bite my tongue and look away.

I tried not to take it personally. After all, everyone was cranky and so I thought maybe I was overreacting, thinking that he was singling me out for my accent when really he was just a jackass. It wasn’t about Germans and foreigners but about two jerks arguing over proper behavior in public. He clearly thinks he was right because he was old and white and middle-class and should be allowed to do whatever the fuck he wants and me, a jerk for thinking there is a modicum of politeness that people should show each other in public by queuing properly.

Instead, I caught myself really questioning his comments. Do I look that foreign? Will I ever fit in here? And how can I teach Diva to do right in the world when she is surrounded by shit like this? Because the thing is, I do take comments about my accent personally and after six weeks of nearly nonstop travel, I was very sensitive to my otherness. In every town I visited, I was introduced as “the American” and although people often fawned over me and my daughter, I was also told numerous times that the person I was talking to in German could “versteh kein Wort” before they’d ask if I spoke German.

If I wasn’t introduced but instead introduced myself, the literal second question out of the other person’s mouth was “Where you from?” Buying petrol in a gas station, the clerk told me I must’ve been on vacation because I didn’t look like I was from around there. A tour guide said she knew who I was immediately upon hearing my accent because she’d heard there was a New Yorker in town. When I picked up concert tickets, a guy offered to meet up with me because he loves Finland and could show me around (Finland? that’s a new one).

You may think it’s cute but imagine that every day both strangers and friends alike remind you that you’re a foreigner. They do it with laughs and joking or they do it with repeated requests for you to say that one word that you pronounce funny or they do it by cursing you out or talking more slowly. Worse: they switch straight to English after you’ve you just opened your mouth to speak and then ask where you’re from. I’ve written about my disdain for this small talk before. No, I don’t want to be chatted up with the line “Where you from?” when I only just met you. I don’t want to be singled out as an outsider every goddamned time I open my mouth. I have been in Germany for ten years and it doesn’t look like I’m leaving any time soon and these daily — sometimes multiple times a day — reminders that I’m different are not harmless. Why should I have to explain myself to you? After ten years here, can I say I’m from Cologne? Why do you assume I can’t speak or understand German because I have a slight accent?

Imagine if I weren’t blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Or an English speaker. Imagine how much more frequently people would ask me where I’m from if I had a Muslim name, as my daughter does (and literally anyone who has ever known her name is Muslim has asked me if I am — none of your business people, none).

A friend of mine who shares my daughter’s surname told me I should consider myself lucky that people are nice and friendly when they ask me where I’m from. “Imagine being the daughter of a Palestinian refugee,” she said, and then she said, “At least when my dad arrived in the 70s, Palestinians were still acceptable. At least he wasn’t Turkish.”

I’m really curious about this sorting out that is done in Germany, this trying to put each person into a particular drawer. The Bavarians in one drawer, the Amis in another, and all of those stereotypes that come along with those labels are applied in advance. Diva, she’s been introduced by some well-meaning people lately as being American as if that says something about her; though she doesn’t correct them, she has learned on her own that this means they think she can’t speak German and so she tells them she speaks German just fine. She’s six and people are already trying to sort her into one or the other category and she understands this. Although she’s proud to be a dual national, she has very little idea of what it means to be American except that it’s a word and people use it when talking about her. But she doesn’t want to be different than the other kids and so I wonder about what this does and will do to her. Kids don’t make these distinctive identifications on their own. They learn these identities as they are given them. Does this happen in the US? Are immigrant children singled out upon introduction as “My Afghani friend Amir”? At what point can we safely assume Germans will stop introducing Diva and I as the Americans?

Of course it’s not as if I want her to choose one identity over the other. But as she grows up in a world filled with xenophobes and xenophobia, I don’t want her to feel the repercussions of this othering. She didn’t choose to be born in a country different from my country of birth. And since you really can’t call her an immigrant anymore, I’m very curious at what point she’ll be accepted as German. Would it be different if she didn’t have a Muslim name? Will it be different for her in the world if she isn’t with me and doesn’t tell people of her American heritage?

My acquaintance with the Palestinian father tells me I shouldn’t deny her the chance to learn about “my” culture. She tells me that I should not try to fully conform her to the German ways and I agree. But as the debate rages on in Germany about refugees and migrants, where xenophobia is not only omnipresent, it’s deeply ingrained, I wonder if I’m not doing her a disservice by raising her with both nationalities and expecting tolerance.

I’m told I’m not. I’m told that I have nothing to worry about — that because I am American, this tolerance is there. I’m told that I’m a “good” immigrant because I pay taxes, because I learned the language, because I’m well educated. And though those last three things are true, I know many other immigrants who do those things as well  but who would still not be classified as “good,” for whatever inane reason the classifier can conjure. But I’ve also experienced that tolerance differently. I came to Germany right after George W Bush had invaded Iraq and people wanted to argue with me about “my” politics. They tried to shame me in classrooms and in bars and in university staff meetings for having elected such a president (I didn’t vote for Bush but that didn’t matter, only my passport did). Right now America is “good.” Right now I am working and therefore “good.” It’s a distinction I’d prefer not to have made, to be honest, although I’m not sure the alternative, brutal intolerance, is any better.

The day after the boat ride, Diva and I stood in line once again, queuing for another nearby attraction that would cool us off on a hot day when suddenly we realized that the woman ahead of us in line was on a diatribe. The people she was talking to were slowly backing away, giving her space, lowering their heads and so she used the opportunity to speak loudly, more clearly, address the others in the line more directly and so Diva and I caught wind of her speech.

“They had it right. Deport them. Deport them all. We don’t need any foreigners here. Foreigners should go back to where they came from.”

I put my hands over Diva’s ears but it was too late. She looked up at me and asked what the lady was so mad about. And then the lady turned to me and, in German, said “Isn’t that right?”

And though normally I would’ve snapped up the chance to tell her off — and honestly, I was waiting for the dozen other people in line who’d heard to do just such — I found myself wondering instead just how to stop this conversation from happening in front of Diva because she’s too young to have to understand or know hate and I want to protect her from that harsh reality as long as I can. And so I just said, in my perfect English. “I don’t understand. I’m a foreigner. Maybe you should deport me?”

These conversations are, unfortunately, going to be more frequent in the next few months and I know it’s not long before Diva starts asking about these things. We’ve already had talks about not labeling people as stupid or dumb and so I’m sure the slurs will come into play soon, too, unfortunately. And so I’m curious and I’m turning this over to you: how do you, as foreigners or as parents or as foreign parents work with your kids on topics of xenophobia? How are you addressing the current atmosphere of hate with them?

The Sexism of German Bureaucracy

On my first trip to the foreigner’s office nearly ten years ago, I had two visa options:

1. Take a 1-year residency permit limiting my working ability to whatever I had to do to fulfill my Fulbright obligations (teach); or

2. Request a spousal visa that would give me the ability to both work and live in Germany for however long the person filling my application decided it should be good for.

So although I had my application form there in front of me, I didn’t fill it out. I didn’t know which would be the better deal. Before I even had a chance to discuss the differences, the beamter assisting us decided for me: I would be on a spousal visa, full stop. In the long run, this was the better deal but this woman, when she decided for us, didn’t know anything about us or our plans. She didn’t know, for example, that although my ex-husband had a German passport in his possession, he hadn’t lived in Germany since he was 11 months old. Or that he didn’t speak the language. Or that he dreaded being in Germany with every ounce of dread possible and was only supposed to stay for a few months because he couldn’t imagine ever living here. That he only had the passport because three months earlier I had read that German citizenship laws had changed again and he could get one while still maintaining his US citizenship.

For me to get the Fulbright, I had to speak B1-level German and attend culture lessons. I had to read Faust in the original Goethe German, for fuck’s sake, and write a four-page statement of motivation in German. I would have been better off, at least in this meeting with her, standing on my own merits. But since I walked in with a man, she refused to talk to me. Instead, she turned to him and said, “Does your wife need integration classes?”

I said no. She said, “I’m not asking you.” And so I translated for the ex, who looked at me and said, “I don’t know. Do YOU want to take integration classes?”

I said no again, and tried to explain that I was answering because his German wasn’t good enough, and she just stared at me. It wasn’t the first time. In the airport, when a security officer had asked him to boot up his laptop before we got on our connecting flight, they laughed and called him a dumb Turk who couldn’t speak the language (he isn’t Turkish and he didn’t understand the racist bastards, luckily).

“Can he take the integration class?”

“No. He’s already German.”

Somehow, don’t ask me how, the integration classes for me were waived and I got a two-year work and residency permit. When I went back to get it renewed, this time in a different office with a different caseworker, she said, “Your husband has to be here,” and so we had to go back again another day where again, they didn’t speak to me but to him.

I get it, I guess. A spousal visa requires the spouse. You have to give proof that you live together, that you both earn money and pay taxes and love each other and whatnot. That’s not the sexist part. The sexist part comes when you try to get a permanent visa.

Because to get a permanent visa after three years of being here (this varies, btw), I needed to have my husband’s support and he absolutely, vehemently refused to give me it. He said if he signed the paperwork allowing me to stay in Germany without him (as a permanent visa would do), that I would leave him. He might’ve been right, but I’m not the kind of girl to marry for a Green Card. We were clearly having issues, but because he wouldn’t sign the visa paperwork, I had to stay on another two-year visa tied to his passport. I could have left him but it would have been harder to get my visa renewed. They assumed — wrongfully in my case, but not without reason — that the male was the breadwinner and so without his income, I would become a charity case and charity cases do not get permanent visas.

By the time we got to five years, to renew the visa, I again needed his signature but he left the country before I could get that. I went to the foreigner’s office to see what I could do and it was a no-go. Spousal visas can’t be converted to work visas, especially for freelancers. So even though I originally arrived on a visa tied to a grant I’d received and I had worked and paid taxes the entire time since (more than my ex could say), I had to leave the country. And so I did. And then I came back.

My second attempt at the permanent visa was different because this time, I didn’t want my visa tied to my ex. He was still out of the country when I came back and so they tied it, this time, to my daughter. Germans love it when little Germans are raised in the Fatherland and so they made it easier for me to get my visa to stay here and work. Also, I had paid taxes and social services for five years prior, so that was a plus. And then three years later, I could finally apply for my permanent visa.

Here’s the sexist bit: because my divorce had not yet officially been documented (the court had not yet sent the paperwork to the city hall), I had to get written permission from my ex-husband that he was okay with me being in Germany. Wie, bitte?

A woman who works and pays taxes and raises a kid on her own is obligated to get permission from a deadbeat, not-quite-ex-husband about where she lives? Eventually, I got the letter written, though not without a power struggle, but the whole process really had me thinking about all those holiday wives that wash up here… you know, the women from exotic southern locales who show up on a German’s arm after he’s taken a long holiday. Or women who are abused by their spouses. While I get that you don’t want people marrying just for Green Cards, if I’d already proven that I paid taxes and worked and had already filed for divorce and yadda yadda, what in the devil did I need my ex’s permission for?

Turns out, the reforms that were made in custody laws several years ago were the culprit in my case but I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around how this whole thing works. See, when two people are married and they have a kid, that kid is automatically 50/50 mom/dad custody (Sorgerecht). When they get divorced, it’s understood that unless officially decided otherwise, the kid will live with mom and the dad gets visitation (umgangsrecht). To get it officially stated otherwise, the dad has to sue the mom for something called the Aufenthaltsbestimmungsrecht — the right to decide where a kid lives. If the dad doesn’t sue — as my ex didn’t — then there is never any official documentation as to where the kid should live and so I have to, it turns out, with every move I make, have my ex put it in writing that he is understanding of the move. And so it was with the visa. My ex had to agree in writing that he was okay with me living in Germany with our daughter. I got off lucky. I’ve been doing research into The Hague Convention and those custody battles sound terrible. But seriously, Germany, there has got to be a better way to figure this shit out than to have a woman get a man’s permission to do the most normal thing: live somewhere. Seriously, women are their own people.

Latte Macciato Mums

A couple months back, I was walking down the street with a friend of mine who’s been trying unsuccessfully for years to have a kid. It always sucks a little bit to talk to her because our conversation always has something to do with kids and seriously, what do you say to someone who’s dealing with infertility issues? “Oh hey, I see you’re not pregnant yet. Still trying? Let me just bitch a little bit about my little darling so you don’t feel like you’re missing out.”

On this occasion, it was especially awkward because my friend was taking me to a partners’ massage at the Thai Massage studio which meant that in T-5 Minutes, we were going to be seeing each other naked, which I am still a bit shy about. So anyway, just as we were about to walk into the massage parlor, I realize another Mom from the Kindergarten is standing right by the door locking her bike. What’s the proper protocol for this greeting? Acknowledge the mom with a nod and a smile? Say hello and continue walking? Attempt small talk (which I despise) despite our rush? We never saw each other outside of the kindergarten but since it’s a tiny parents’ run Kita, we see each other there every month at parents’ night.

I decided to say hello and keep walking, noting that if she seemed offended, I could explain later how uncomfortable I was and how we were running late. So I said hi. And she did nothing. Not a nod. Not a smile. Not a word. She just looked right through me. And since we were like two feet away from each other and I am totally unique, it’s not like she didn’t recognize me.

“That was weird,” my friend said. “Who was that?”

“A mom from the kindergarten.”

“Oh man,” she said. “That’s why if I do ever get knocked up, I’m not raising the kid in this neighborhood. These moms are bitches.”

For like half a second, I defended the mom. It’s a habit I’m trying to create — to not talk shit about people or get offended by what I consider impoliteness. After all, this woman was probably feeling just as awkward as I was, right? I let it drop but made a note to try to play nice with this mom at the next parents’ night. Because one of the things I’m learning beyond the it’s not just me philosophy is that these moms who are bitches are probably going to be in my life for a while. If Diva wants to play their kids, I gotta be nice to them. If Diva doesn’t want to hang with their kids but we still have to keep seeing each other at playgrounds and soccer games, I gotta be nice to them. Cologne is small like that. My neighborhood even smaller.

And I have spent most of the last year in a selfish haze of bad fucking moods that I am sure has made a few people wonder what bug crawled up my ass so I have to start trying to make good with the mummies here again. The sun is shining and I have to hit the playgrounds with Diva again. Imagine my difficulty, then, when I overheard one of the new moms at the kindergarten talking about our kindergarten at the playground and the phrase “Latte Macciato Mamas” was used. Clearly this woman did not know that I was one of the Moms in question — we hadn’t yet attended a parents’ night together because I have been avoiding those like the plague this year — and the statement made me take a step back. It’s bad enough that people who know me don’t like me but at least I get that. I’m not always fun to be around. I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. But a pauschal hatred based on the Kindergarten I chose to send my kid to? A judgment about me because of the neighborhood I live in or the clothes that I wear?

I have a sense of humor. I can make fun of myself. Self-hatred is not a uniquely German trait. But how do you address this without sounding like a complete asshole? Hu-hu, heard you call me a yummy yuppy and just wanted to let you know, I’m just as broke as you! Whatever. It’s not important what this new mom thinks. We’re out of the insanity of the kindergarten next year and into the strangeness that is the German school system, complete with its own PTA problems so I don’t really need to prove I’m too lactose intolerant to be a latte drinker or that the Armani sunglasses I hide behind were an appeasement gift given years ago by a woman who felt guilty for flirting with my husband.

But the experience does have me thinking a bit about these relationships we’re building with the people we encounter every day. What are we doing to each other by cutting each other down? What purpose does this mummy hate serve? What are we teaching our kids when we’re throwing around casual judgments and talking smack when they’re in earshot? I understand the harm this does and though I haven’t been at all perfect, I am going to try to be better. Kill ’em with kindness. Starting now.

On My Fear of Flying

I didn’t get on a plane for the first time until I was old enough to drive. I had been living with an aunt in Florida, working as her nanny while my parents got a divorce, and suddenly, two days before Hurricane Andrew made landfall, I had to make my way back home without getting stuck in a natural disaster. My dad booked me a flight and after a summer spent realizing there was more to the world than my tiny-ass country bumpkin town, I gladly got on it. Flying, I realized, would be my ticket to the outside world. I ordered a sparkling water, a drink that tasted terrible to my Coke-adapted tastebuds, and I drank it down imagining the people around me on the plane thought I was far more glamorous than I’d ever imagined myself to be. After all, those were the days before everyone was flying and I was the only “kid” on her own on that plane.

When I moved out to Boston half a decade later, I realized that flying wasn’t as exotic as I’d made it out to be. Yes, airplanes took me to Europe and across the country, but they did that same thing for everybody who could afford them to. As I moved up into the middle-class, I finally realized that the costs of flying didn’t make it the luxury it had once appeared to poor little me. I flew to Chicago and Los Angeles and Charlotte. For fun. Because I could. Because all my middle class friends expected that of me. I was a worldly woman, sophisticated, I traveled on a whim, went away for the weekend. I took a near empty commuter shuttle between Boston and New York City in late August 2001 because my sister was having a hard day and I wanted to do some shopping.

When I visited her a month later, I took the train. On my morning walk to work just a week before, I had crossed a bridge from which I could see planes taking off from Logan Airport. And that afternoon, on my walk home, the only sound I heard were fighter jets cutting through the air above me. After that, flying felt like less of a luxury.

“Just calling to make sure you weren’t on your way to LA,” my friend said into my answering machine. I wasn’t but an acquaintance of my sister’s was. I guess that’s when you could say my fear of flying began.

In the meantime, I’ve flown quite a bit. I took a short break from it, but it’s a part of the middle-class life I’ve adapted since living in Boston. Upon moving to Germany, I knew I’d have to keep flying, hopping the pond at least once a year. Working as a freelance journalist, I knew I’d have to grab a flight to Leipzig for a day spent filming or a quick appearance at a Fashion Week. But it hasn’t been easy.

I had a panic attack on a short-haul flight ten years ago — the first I’d ever had — and the OCD rituals to prevent them from ever happening mid-air again began. Checking the safety records of every style of aircraft before settling on Airbus 320/330. Checking the safety records of every airline imaginable before choosing which to fly (Lufthansa, always Lufthansa). Choosing only direct flights (avoiding stopovers), never flying through England, the list goes on, has grown longer each year. It got so bad two years ago that I would have nightmares just even thinking about booking a flight; my hands would shake so badly I couldn’t book my tickets online and yet I would somehow book them. The Dramamine tablets I would take for motion sickness in the air would be swallowed before we’d even get on the train to the airport. A friend who saw this, whose brother was a pilot, admonished me for the rituals. “You fly too much to be afraid of flying,” he’d said. “And it’s way safer than driving.”

I know these things. But panic and logic are two completely separate ways of thinking and the parts of your brain handling those two things do not communicate. Panic, if you’re wondering, comes from one part “thinking too much/too catastrophically” and one part being so stressed out you can’t cope with life’s little things anymore. It wasn’t surprising then that my fear of flying grew uncontrollable when I was already being treated for exhaustion. What was surprising was that the doctor treating me for burnout also prescribed me some sleeping pills to help keep me calm during flights. If I were really exhausted, as he claimed, I shouldn’t have continued flying everywhere. A doctor looking out for my best interest would have told me not to go to Lebanon at the start of the Syrian civil war and to get more sleep instead. Instead, I got magic blue pills, a medication so strong it can cause amnesia even after small doses.

I flew more in the year following than I had ever done in my life. With those pills, I had the same terrible fears but none of the physical symptoms. I could worry that something was wrong with the plane without having to puke. I could feel the turbulence and my heart wouldn’t race. The pills dulled my senses, made flying feel finally okay again.

Portugal Beach

What the doctor didn’t tell me was that those pills had hideous side effects, that they were so addictive, they weren’t something for recovering addicts like me. I found out the hard way while lying on a beach in Portugal staring at the rolling surf while feeling completely out of my mind as I’d only felt when coming down from a high as a teenage junkie. I knew, before I’d even talked to a doctor, that it had to do with the pills. I also knew that it had to do with me, with feeling overwhelmed by this middle-class life and by having catastrophic thinking.

Since I came back from Portugal 18 months ago, I haven’t flown. I haven’t gone to the US. I have turned down lucrative job offers in other cities, taken a ten-hour train ride instead of a two-hour plane ride, avoided holidaying with friends I haven’t seen in ages, all in order to not have to get on a plane. It’s given me the time I need to recuperate from the exhaustion. To learn how not to catastrophize in my thinking. To prioritize. Do I really need to be in Copenhagen for Fashion Week again? Can I not just live here in Germany and ignore the rest of my family in the US?

And I have to admit: it was working. Taking the stress out of my life was a great step, even if it hasn’t gone far enough yet. Therapy to retrain my thinking was working, even if the voice now judging me in my head is my therapist’s (auf Deutsch, too, which makes that voice so very harsh!) I was just about to book tickets to Portugal for the summer break. And thinking about Christmas in the US. But after this week, I realize I still have a ways to go. Although in reading all of the news reports, I’ve realized my fear of flying has less to do with the realities of flight than with panic. All the OCD rituals in the world can’t prevent things from happening. And though I don’t want to make this about me, it’s hard not to feel it when it’s that close to home again. I — and I think a lot of other people — need serious time to digest what the fuck has just happened.

What about you all? How are you coping with the tragedy?