The other night, Beloved and I were discussing the challenges of living and working in the middle of long term change, the nature of travel and vacations, and the annoying fact that no matter where you go, there you are. Only, of course due to these issues emerging in the form of a conflict, in not so clear and direct language, We had to take some time to sort out what we were fighting about.
Arguments help uncover ignored or emerging emotion and truths. The ones we don’t want to acknowledge, like the fact that it still takes a lot of energy and concentration just to order food at a restaurant or to go grocery shopping. Or to work with co-workers who have a different confrontation style then Americans. Or to keep going outside when its snowing on Easter morning.*
On the surface, we were talking about where to go in April. We want to go somewhere at least once a month or else we might end up leaving in three years with most of Europe unseen.
Which assumes that there’s significant value in seeing all, or as much as reasonable, of Europe as possible.
Which then, once this assumption is clearly articulated, begs the question – why?
And thus the argument in our kitchen the other night.
What exactly are we doing here?
We both missed the Grand Summer Backpacking Around Europe Year. We both come from working class families so that whole freedom-to-roam thing wasn’t financially feasible. Also, as I grew up on the West Coast, the ticket cost just to get to the East Coast, let alone across the pond was a high barrier. Taking a contract in Germany for a few years seemed like a great way to get that year only with both money and time.
Only, why? Why is seeing Europe so important? Is it the art? Is it the history? Is is the culture? Is it the struggle to live and communicate so that we might be better citizens of the world?
I grew up with the idea of World Peace. Being born in 1958, my childhood was very much of the Mad Men era, that post WWII-gosh-that-can’t-happen-again and by-the-way-nuclear-bombs-are-going-to-kill-us-all. As a child I was taught to sing It’s A Small World, and did the float through the tunnel of endless mechanical drones dressed in native costumes from all over the world. I played with paper dolls that arrived in the pages of Golden Magazine. Each month, a boy and a girl with modern clothes and with their colorful native costumes. I treasured that collection so much I still have them in the beat up toy doctor box I used to keep them safe way back in Springfield, Oregon.
In the Girl Scouts, I celebrated World Thinking Day. Thinking Day is a sacred Girl Scout holiday celebrating Girl Scouts and Girl Guides from around the world. Troops in each council would be assigned a country. We’d research our country, make colorful native costumes, attempt to learn a charming native dance, and prepare delicious yummy native foods. My schools also tended to attempt a version of UN Day with the same sort of thing as if consuming a sausage would create World Peace. That the whole plan for World Peace is to learn the steps to each other’s folk dance because then we’d be less likely to invade each other.** Did children in other countries go through the same thing?
These days, the Girl Scout Thinking day projects are less about interesting and exotic new foods and more about Global Action day based on the UN Millennium goals. Thinking Day 2013 focused on Development Goal #4 which is “reducing child mortality rates around the globe.” I have to say that’s a long ways away from Swedish Meatballs in the corn yellow teflon coated electric plug in skillet.
Then there’s the movies. Especially The Red Balloon. Remember The Red Balloon? The charming balloon that is rescued by a little boy who then follows him through the streets of a run down yet still so je ne sais quoi neighborhood in Paris. Look! Beautifully grimy houses, and people riding bikes on charming cobblestone streets and here I am, growing up in a still raw lumber town in the southern end of the Willamette Valley. Little did I know at the time that Ken Kesey was cranking up the bus and departing from the family dairy just on the other side of town. Or that dairy would re-invent itself into Nancy’s Yogurt, aka the tupperware of organic Oregonians everywhere.
I finally got a chance to come to Europe in the mid-1990’s. I went to support a trade show booth in Geneva for a company I was working for in between legislative sessions. I went early to visit the mountain village my Grandfather came from. As it happened, my parents were in England at the time and they came down to join me. My mother lost her father before she was a year old and has carried a longing for the Heidi life ever since. A few years earlier, she had finally re-united with the whole of the Tannler clan in that village so she walked me around the old landmarks. I have difficulty explaining this, but as I approached the village in that jet lag fog, I felt a deep, almost genetic memory, rising up within me that whispered, “home.”
Is this why I have longed for Europe almost my entire life? My dead grandfather calling his children home? The generations of Tannler’s that have been born, baptized, and buried in this high valley? No one is left, as far as I can tell. At least of my grandfather’s branch of the family. All of my generation are now scattered across Europe because, as my grandfather knew, there is no real work left other then tending the ski lifts and the funicular to Reichenbach Falls.
Beloved was restless. Work was not going as well as he’d like and the skies have been Oregon gray for weeks. He wanted to escape, to go to Budapest, to get out of the German heaviness. I’m not ready for Budapest yet. I’m still wanting to feel successful in Easy Europe where English is not very far away. I still want to go to the parts of Europe that has been marketed to me in literature, film, and the WWII’s generational desire to somehow heal the wounds of that horrific war.
I experience anxiety when I shift languages, location, and culture. I rarely feel competent any longer. It’s a constant scan of who is around me, what are they saying, what is that announcement, can someone translate that for me, and why is the word for chicken stock Der Geflügel Fond? Is there anything in Gerflügel that makes you think of chicken? At least Lamm contains it’s own clue. ****
Did we come to Europe to escape or to embrace? To be safe or to keep launching out into the unknown?
If Europe has been a coveted vacation destination, then what does it mean to be here as residents? What then becomes the escape and relax vacation/weekend? Does it become a tyranny to try to see all the museums, to taste all the foods? But here we are right now and may never be again.
Yesterday, I stood in the cold at a currywurst stand, sharing a table with a retired German soldier who had gone to Bosnia in the peacekeeping force. He taught the locals how to defuse the land mines. The Bosnian war is surprisingly present still. This is the second veteran of that peacekeeping force I have met. I pretty much missed the whole thing at the time*** yet there I was, talking about the restoration of World Peace with someone who had been there and done that. This is one of the reasons I am so glad we made this leap.
I don’t yet know what it means to be here. Are we tourists on an extended vacation? Are we exchange students living that year abroad? Are we expats moving in-between languages and cultures we don’t know, and which we are clearly the other and English-speaking expat communities where we are at least together in this displacement? Are we temporary locals, to borrow a phrase from Rick Steves? What is our responsibility to this community we now live within and to the communities we remain connected to back home? And how does all of this come out of growing up during that 1960’s idealistic search for a world safe for children every where?
We’re still talking about where to go in April, a week from now. We’ll figure something out and I’ll be sure to take pictures and tell you all about it. Eventually. This writing on a schedule thing is challenging sometimes.
Thank you for reading.
*The North Atlantic Jet Stream is having some trouble getting back into position where it sweeps over England and then down into Germany. Instead the wind keeps speaking in some sort of arctic Russian accent.
**Have you noticed that the US does not seem to have a charming native folk dance of its own? I think Jazzercise or just plain arobics class are a native and uniquely American folk dance. We wear colorful clothing that is not street-ware. We move in coordinated motion together with music. The American twist is that we do this For Important Self-improvement, not just because its fun.
*** I was living on the West Coast and raising very young children at the time. I missed a lot of world events including the South African struggle for liberation. If it didn’t involve child-wrangling then it wasn’t on my attention screen.
*** Wait! Hold the Presses!! I think I just figured this out. Flug is a word that shows up with airports and birds. It means – Flight. I feel so much better now. Really, I’m doing a little happy dance because something makes sense.