The first time I ever had a panic attack, I was 13 years old, my parents were newly separated, and I was laying on the couch, staring at the Christmas tree. I didn’t know that what was happening was a panic attack and took it at mystical face value: these racing thoughts about death and dying meant I was having premonitions of my own death. My world went black except for the Christmas lights and I couldn’t breathe.
As an adult, I can recognize this for what it was: mourning the loss of my family. But at the time, I was certain I was going to die. And after that, Christmas became zero fun.
It’s pretty standard that you hear kids of divorce have difficulties at Christmas. The family’s split and you either get two super-duper fun and exciting present-opening days or you get two god-this-is-torture present-opening days. I chose neither. Stopped celebrating Christmas. Or at least I tried to.
I went snowboarding or traveled cross-country (or both) just so I could avoid the awkwardness of a holiday that meant nothing to me. So that my poor parents wouldn’t have to buy me presents I didn’t want and vice versa. So that I wouldn’t be around to witness all the damned arguing that goes along with my extended family being in the same room at once.
Avoidance. My coping skill.
My ex generally tolerated this … frugal bastard he was, he didn’t mind not having to buy me gifts. Or all the expensive decorations that would’ve gotten trashed in our myriad moves. He even got a trip to Turkey out of the deal. His parents hated it, though, so every so often, we would fly to see them and sit around eating red-and-green pepper salad and they would gift me with cookware that I had no intention of using (but the ex certainly made use of, god bless his housewifery intentions). And every year, I would say, well, that’s it: Christmas sucks and I’m not doing it again.
And then the Diva came along and I started to feel some sense of obligation to her. Her first and second Christmases were spent in California, looking at seals and hiking in the rain. We were avoiding the traditional holiday fetes but hadn’t yet figured out what we were going to replace them with. It worked because she was too young to understand.
But then her dad and I weren’t together and her third Christmas, he was demanding it be celebrated. He didn’t care how. Just that it would be. This worked a little because she was at kita and they did all the German Christmas things: St. Nick came to visit, and there was an Advent calendar tree, and they learned to sing songs in German and put on a pageant. My parents came to see us and brought a suitcase full of presents and we went to the petting zoo and generally made it out to be just another day, except the grandparents were there and it was fun.
It was enough fun that I thought maybe we should do it again this year. Except that I didn’t want to sit around in rainy Germany and I didn’t want to spend a shit-ton of money to fly to the middle of nowhere and go stir crazy at my parents’, where the only escape was to the corner bar, where I would likely run into people I never wanted to see after I left town at the age of 18. So I decided we’d fly to Lake Tahoe and I could rent a cabin in the woods and go cliff jumping and cross some things off my to-do list for the year. How selfish of me.
With six feet of snow in three days, the babe got a real taste of white Christmas. She’s been ice skating and sledding. Put a hat on a snowman. Built a snow fort. Trekked through snow piles taller than her. I’ve been snowboarding and some day soon, we’ll teach her how to ski.
But nothing else about this Christmas worked and so I have my doubts about doing it again. I forgot about family dynamics. About how when my family is together, we all revert into the roles we took on when I was younger, a role I’m not comfortable with anymore. About how each of us is a human with our own desires and needs and way of doing things and these wants are not at all compatible. My family couldn’t stop bickering. No one could do anything right in the others’ minds. I was miserable and everyone, Diva included, knew this.
At some point, I thought her excitement about the magic of the holiday might rub off on me. Instead, the family dynamic I moved far away to escape turned me into an unbearable beast. The six feet of snow stressed my parents out. The kid found her Christmas presents before Santa arrived so she doesn’t believe in some magical fairy tale dude (who she was doubtful about anyway when we told her, no, he didn’t fly in an airplane but in a sleigh with reindeer). So much for Christmas magic.
The thing is, as I think about what to do with her next year, there are two things in the back of my mind: 1. The need for third culture kids to have a firm family foundation and traditions, and 2. The need for my kid to grow up knowing love and tolerance. Right now, I feel like these two things are mutually exclusive. And I need to find a way to reconcile that they aren’t and give her what she needs. I just don’t know if that’s going to include Christmas with me and a tree.
Of the many things I don’t miss about living in the US, Thanksgiving is one of the tops on my list. My dad’s a hunter and this is deer season so Thanksgiving for me is always tied to the image of gutted deers hanging in the garage, blood on the floor, entrails nearby. Needless to say, I don’t try and repeat those memories over here in Germany.
That said, the idea of spending some time reflecting on all the good things in your life and thanking some obscure deity for them is a concept I can totally get behind. So here goes nothing — five things I’m super thankful for this year:
1. Having a job that (most of the time) lets me work from wherever whenever so that I can (like today), take the day off to hang out with my favorite female or (like next month) rent a cabin in the woods and hide out from life without going broke.
2. Finally discovering who I am and what I want out of life. As the old saying goes, “Everything you could ever want or be you already have and are” … I’m especially excited by the power that realization brings.
3. Living in Europe, with the means to travel, which has led to too much fun (partying with rock stars and splurging on lingerie in Denmark was the highlight).
4. That my ex owned up and came back to Germany to co-parent his kid. I know this sounds strange considering the dumptruck of manure he’s constantly pouring on me, but I’ve grown a lot from having him back in my life, namely the confidence to stand up for myself but also the knowledge that I can and do do nearly everything on my own and I’m pretty good at that. Also thankful because the Diva needs a Daddy and she’s been in love with him from day one so his year-long absence was not ideal. And yeah, the ability to get drunk with friends every so often while she crashes at his place is kind of nice.
5. The way that life has brought all the right people into my life at exactly the right time. There’s more to this story than I want to bring up here, but let’s just say I feel very *blessed* (hate that word) by some of the random strangers-turned-friends who’ve been instrumental in making sure my life is awesome.
All that said, I think my lesson learned for this year is my new life motto: if you want something, ask for it. It’ll happen if it’s supposed to.
So what are you thankful for this year?
Sometimes I am amazed at the things Germans think of as distinctly American. Like table dancing. I asked a friend once why the sign and he told me that of course table dancing is an American habit. “German women would never take off their shirts AND dance on top of a table simultaneously.” Of course they wouldn’t. These pragmatic feminists would never behave like sorority girls on Spring Break.
Also distinctly American: bikini waxes. Now, at the risk of revealing too much here, I will admit to having set foot recently in a number of wax salons and in doing so learned quite a bit about what Germans think Americans do with their bikini areas. Of course, good old-school me was looking for an eyebrow wax (people, get your mind out of the gutter…) but they don’t do that here in the Fatherland. Which seems a little strange to me, considering that even the young men here seem to be obsessed with their depilatory regime (or so I’m told — and, I confess, have witnessed at the sauna; those cyclists sure do take the need to be bare seriously). You’d wax your man sack but not your eyebrows? Sheesh…
Just a side note to any Germans out there: in case you really *do* want to wax your man sack and have to do so in a foreign country, Ricky Gervais has a few tips for you starting around minute 10:
Anyway, at one of the salons, the price list caught my eye because, after referencing only body parts (arms, upper lip, etc…), suddenly there was this expansive list of things in and around the bikini area to choose from. So I had to ask: what’s the difference between a classic bikini wax, a Brazilian, and an American? It sounds like a bad joke doesn’t it: a classicist, a Brazilian and an American walk into a bar; who walks out with the most hair?
If I understood correctly, in this scenario, it’s the American, but I’ll admit to there being just the slightest bit of difficulty in the translation. The woman I asked started talking about the Venushuegel, which I promptly typed into my iphone translator to discover is, in English, the Mound of Venus. That explains everything…. if you know what this is. I didn’t have a clue at the time but since I wasn’t there to have Venus’ Mound be bared, I shrugged it off and went off to the next salon to see if I could get my eyebrows waxed.
And that’s when things got real complicated. Because there there were numerous Brazilians on offer: Brazilian Hollywood, Brazilian triangle, Brazilian HEART-SHAPED ARROW! Which seemed about as awesome and romantic and clever as vajeweling with Swarovski crystals but whatevs, who am I to judge you for your body hair choices, right? I mean, come on, ladies, who would try to fight it with a guy who’s shaved not one but two hearts into his chest hair? I digress…. (with thanks to Oh God My Wife Is German for finding that bucking bronco).
Well, since there was no such thing as a Brazilian eyebrow wax, I made my way out the door and over to the next wax studio (is it just me or have those buggers suddenly popped up everywhere? As if being hairy is really out of fashion or something….), where I learned that a Brazilian Hollywood is the new name for the age-old Sphynx. Nothing breeds creativity like the need for giving obscure names to otherwise “normal” things. I mean, really, can’t they just call it the Venus’ Bare Mound wax or something? What do being hairless and being American (or Brazilian) have in common with a cat? Oh, I GET IT NOW. Ah-ha-ha-ha….
Turns out, this is a stupid pop culture side effect: thanks to the ladies on Sex and the City, Germans now believe that all Americans are hairless down there. That you’d be hard-pressed to find a pu$sy wig over in the States. Or something like that. This contrasts quite a bit with what this very funny Frenchman in Julie Delpy’s very funny 2 Days in Paris seems to think, but he’s French, so you know, his views on Americans are totally different.
And here’s the point in the post where I turn to you, dear readers, for some help. Is this a distinctly German phenomenon, this labeling of things as American that no flag-waving Ami would otherwise consider a part of the culture? Also: are there “American” bikini waxes on offer in America? Or the counterpart, a European wax? Because, you know, this is important stuff for us international women to know….
One of the things I hate most about meeting new people is the small talk that inevitably ensues once we get beyond formal introductions. I hated it when I lived in the States but I hate it even more in Germany because it always goes something like this:
“Where are you from?”
“Big City, Germany.”
“No, no, I mean where are you from?”
And depending on my mood and the likelihood of my seeing this person again, I either continue to be a bitch and say “I live around the corner” or I lie “Denmark” (always, always works, thank God, though the Ami trying to pick me up in Pennsyltucky really showed his worth by replying “I’ve always wanted to go to Amsterdam”) or I suck it up and prepare for the bombardment.
When people see me suck it up, and I always make my impatience known by taking extra long to answer, some actually apologize by way of saying, “Because you know, your accent. It’s cute, but you know, you’ve got an accent.”
Yes I know I have a fucking accent! I want to scream.
I am not an idiot, even if I make grammar mistakes that make me sound like a second-grader. We’re not speaking English, though, now are we? And if we were, I would never be so impolite as to tell you you had an accent, though we all know you sound like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers. So stop with the fucking accent thing already.
But then we have to move on, get the full download on what said person thinks of America. Because Germans, it seems, always know soooo much about the US. Either they were there this one time when they were thirteen on an exchange program and had a host family that tried to convert them to fundamental Christianity or they went shopping in New York City once or they absolutely positively have dreamed their whole life of how awesome Miami’s beaches are and so they read all about it in the Reisefuehrer they bought for reading during their retirement. When I say I’m from the middle-of-nowhere but somewhere near Chicago, eyes glaze over. A few have actually asked if that’s closer to New York or Los Angeles. So yeah, no give-and-take conversation possible here. I love New York. I hated Los Angeles. I lived in Florida for a white hot second. Can we move on?
We continue on with other person repeating his or her thoughts on the US. It’s gotten better since George W is no longer president — that was a fun time to learn all sorts of *facts* about American foreign policy from readers of Der Spiegel — but now we’re reduced to mundane conversations about how enormous grocery stores in the US are or how ridiculously fat everyone is (accompanied by the most backhanded compliment ever, “You don’t look very big for an American”. Yeah, um, thanks?). It’s nice to know that it’s not just Germans who have these impressions of Americans, as the Atlantic recently pointed out in their survey piece, “The Land of Big Groceries, Big God, and Smooth Traffic.”
Among other interesting things pointed out as being “American” in nature: Christmas lights, “public displays of affection, high obesity rates, families shipping their elderly parents off to nursing homes, dog-owners kissing their pets, and widespread gun ownership.”
Yeah, talking about the twelve guns my dad owns is always a great starter. As is the fact that I am part Native American. But these are conversations I’d rather not have, and the longer they go on, the less my interest in volleying questions back at the other person becomes.
I know I’m not the only one with this problem. My (German) friend who’s a math teacher said something similar happens to her when people ask about her job. “Math, huh? I was never very good at math.” …
But if we switch to career questions, I get screwed even more.
“What brought you here, work or love?”
And there’s that whole verbotene topic that we *both* don’t want to talk casually about over a glass of wine-with-sparkling water. Conversation over.
So here’s my question to all of you expats out there: short of faking that you speaka-no-Denglish (got busted doing that one too many times), how do you handle these inevitably awful introductions? What’s your sure-fire trick to steer this conversation in a new direction. What’s your small talk masterpiece? Do you bring up the German reputation for too-tight Speedos and/or sandals-with-socks? Try and explain Dieter and his monkey? Say, “How about that Tatort, ay?”
Inquiring minds want to know….