On How Expatriation Resets You (From “Make Me German”)

Make Me German

Now, some seven years later, I realize what moving abroad actually does — it resets you. If you live in one place for a long time, as I had in England, you are constantly surrounded by people that speak your language and share your culture, so it’s easy to forget how special it is. You see only its flaws and minor inconveniences. Or perhaps even worse, you think that the way you do things there is the right way. That there are normal people, and strange people, and fortunately enough, as chance would have it, you were born into the normal tribe, and all those other people over there, from other places, foreign places, with their strange cultures and languages and customs — those people are the strange ones.

Then, suddenly, you’re somewhere else with a completely different idea of normal.

Currently reading Adam Fletcher’s “Make Me German,” which has a lot of smart things to say about the transition from one country to the other, and feeling pretty understood.

Resilience: Poise Under Pressure

My best friend is away this week undergoing some obscene psychological test in which she will be fake kidnapped and in real life have to trek through mountains with little food and no sleep and a bunch of soldiers at her back just so they can test her resilience. When I talked to her last week, she wasn’t worried about it. She’d lived in Afghanistan for five years, been around bombings and her acquaintances there have been assassinated and though some of that stuff shook her up at the time, she’s kept going back.

It’s a test of that new buzzword in Germany — resilience — and it’s one I’m sure my friend will pass with flying colors. Her issues are not issues brought on by hunger or lack of sleep or too much exercise and her mental health is more stable than that of anyone I have ever known. Her worries are far beyond those that will arise on this weeklong adventure.

A couple years ago, I met a guy who ran these tests — they’re common for development workers and conflict reporters — and he said he was always surprised by the people who cracked and the things that made them crack. The toughest looking guy might only endure two days before using the safe word while the smallest and frailest would be the most psychologically sound after a week spent shivering, despite getting physically ill from the lack of food. The test, he said, brought out some issues in people that they themselves didn’t even know existed and was a good barometer for testing who could handle the difficulties of living in a developing country or war zone. You get a score at the end of the week and that determines what kind of placement you can get — hardship conditions and all.

Ever since I heard about this test, I was curious about what kind of score I would get. I once got mugged and fended off the muggers with my bare hands. Usually, faced with some sort of difficulty, I am the first to stand up and create an action plan and get ‘er done as they say. But this test… I don’t know. I can handle a night or two without sleep. I took care of a newborn by myself, got through the year-long phase of no sleep. Combined with a lack of food? I think I would get unbearable. Or maybe not. Maybe in a foreign, developing, country, where my basic survival needs were not being met, my mental state of affairs would be a completely different story.

In the book, “Brief an Mein Leben,” a former German speechwriter talks about her stay in a clinic in the Allgau after having a breakdown that she attributes to Burn Out. One of her assignments as part of the inpatient program is to stay awake for 48 hours. She does so and finds herself gorging on food she would never otherwise eat and gets really excited about it — precisely the reason her doctor has prescribed this. I can’t remember the explanation but it’s something like, if you stay awake long enough, you strip away all of the societal barriers and those sub-conscious things that are ruling your life and you get to know yourself and your needs/primal urges better so that you may, as part of your healing process, focus on them. It’s these primal urges that Maslov said are the basis of our self-actualization pyramid. When they falter, everything else does, too.

pyramidofneeds

The idea is interesting to me: bringing all that psychological nonsense going on beneath the surface to the top so you can recognize your core physiological issues while also maybe figuring out your purpose — that thing that makes you endure all the stress and still wake up the next day ready for more. If you strip away all the societal norms, what are you living for?

Right before my friend left for her adventure, we met up for a lunch that left us both in tears. Not because of the insanity that she was about to endure. But because of the mundanity of our everyday lives and the bullshit stress that is a part of it.  Because we both know the things that we want to live for but can’t strip away all those societal norms or find a way for our dreams to conform to them. We know we can endure even in the face of the most absurd psychological stress and yet it’s this every day bullshit that is unbearable. I didn’t need to march barefoot through the mountains to know that.

Week In Review: Sleeping Late and Staying in PJs

I am testing my newfound ability to remain positive under all circumstances pretty hardcore this week, shrugging off a whole lot of bullshit while maintaining some calm. I figured, if a dude held hostage for nearly three years by Somali pirates can keep himself calm with some yoga despite the nearby grenade launchers, my life ain’t all bad, is it?

I started the week by picking up a very sick kid from her papa’s house. Although she had gone to his place with a fever and a warning that all her Kita friends had the flu, nothing prepared me for the Diva that I had to carry like a newlywed under the threshold up four flights of stairs. She couldn’t even keep her eyes open on the car ride home because the sun was too bright.

I canceled her birthday party against her father’s wishes (it’s in a gymnastics room, you can just lay her on a mat and she can watch, the twat said, the last I heard from him all week), put her to bed with a fever nearing 40 and waited impatiently all week for it to go down on its own. Yes, she got ibuprofen to deal with the pain but Jayzus, this flu she had was awful and the fever just did not quit. It’s still there, inching back each evening just before bed. 14 of 16 kids at her Kita and a bunch of the parents got it and by the time we finally made it to the doctor on Thursday, it was confirmed to be “just a virus, but a very long-lasting one.” You’re telling me.

I decided to fend off any germs by sleeping 10 to 12 hours a day and cuddling the kid all week, never changing out of my pjs except to put fresh ones on. When was the last time you suckers did that? The first two days it felt good. Now I just feel like an obese sloth but now that the chocolate cake intended for Diva’s birthday party has been polished off and no one brought me chocolates for Valentine’s Day, that may change.

I realized, too, this week, that contrary to what every other expat says about Germans, some of these countrymen are fucking phenomenal. When we ran out of sugar drinks to keep fluids in Diva, I texted 2 neighbors and within minutes, our fridge was restocked. Take that isolationist Americans with your big ass fenced-in yards and tinted car windows that keep you from knowing your neighbors.

While convalescing, I read a number of books… “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown (which is terribly written but has been one of the more helpful self-help books I’ve read in ages), the trashy “Schwerelos” by Ildiko von Kuerthy, and a couple of pages from Book One of the “My Struggle” series by Karl Ove Knausgaard, who is a superb writer but who is so narcissistic I kept wondering if the urge to vomit I had meant I was getting the flu.

Now here comes the bummer part:

I canceled our planned ski vacation scheduled to coincide with Karneval, also known as get the fuck out of Cologne time, for the second year in a row. Diva is devastated but we’ll just have to go to Switzerland to make up for it soon. Anybody got some gold needs depositing?

I also had to cancel a bunch of engagements that I really wanted in on, including going to Milan, and in doing so, realized that my biggest client is more batshit than I am and that is no small measure. So after a week of doing absolutely as little as possible, I will be all adult next week to see what I can salvage of this mess I call my life.

First up: a trip to the career coach who keeps reminding me that “finding a sugar daddy” is not a legit objective to be putting on my CV.

Whatever, I’m still getting my hair did right afterward, although let’s be honest: $30,000 a year and a Louis Vuitton bag ain’t really worth my time.

What’s your week ahead look like?

And if you haven’t had contact with this killer flu, a word to the wise: quarantine yourselves now. It’s about as fun as Weiberfastnacht at 2 a.m., minus the torn-up costumes.

Tiny, Beautiful Things

I did not write this letter of gratitude, I swear, but I could have:

Dear Sugar,
I am grateful for the confidence to be alone, and not lonely. I am grateful for the way life takes you to the place farthest from what you dreamt for yourself, and that you can make a life for yourself, there.

Some of you may recognize this from my other blog, but I thought it was worth another post here, not just because it says exactly what I’ve been feeling, but also because Ms. Sugar’s book is now out and the things she writes are just so worth your time to read. Cheryl is a wonderful and warm woman and her advice, even when written to another, always speaks to me.