Kristi Fuoco: One year abroad and a few things learned

“It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves – in finding themselves.” -Andre Gide

It’s hard to believe that a year ago today I walked off the plane in the Hamburg airport with a mind buzzing with anticipation, a stomach full of butterflies and not nearly enough winter clothing. My cousin and his girlfriend greeted me with giant German welcome signs, much to the delight of the rest of the crowd and it immediately made me feel right at home. I remember so clearly a moment later that day, when they took me out for my first Kumpir (delicious Turkish stuffed baked potatoes) in Hamburg’s funky Schanze neighbourhood. I was sitting there with them, eating my potato and thinking, “Oh my god. I’m living in Germany. How the hell did I end up here?” I was terrified of what I had gotten myself into. The path that led me to Germany was anything but smooth. It involved major heart break due to a major crisis, drastic changes of plan (I always tell people how I meant to live in Brazil and somehow ended up in Germany), a leave of absence from my job, having to pack up my whole life in a hurry, supportive friends and family and a massive leap of faith. I arrived in Hamburg with one suitcase, no job, a bit of money, a broken heart but a spirit ready for adventure.

So, a year later, here I am, preparing for another year in Germany, much to my surprise. I thought I would take this anniversary to reflect again, just like I did with my “Six things I’ve learned in six months” post. Here are a few things I’ve learned this past year.

The best laid plans….Sometimes we have this idea of how we think our lives should look and how things should end up and when. It’s hard to let go of this when things don’t go according to plan. When the rug was pulled right from under my feet, back in the fall of 2011, I had to re-evaluate everything I thought and felt and knew. I couldn’t understand why life was being so unfair. But strangely enough, I now know I ended up where I was meant to be. How could I have known that Hamburg, Germany was the place I would find myself again? No, I don’t plan on being here forever, but I know it’s the place I’m supposed to be right now. Whatever I needed to learn in life, apparently this was the place for me to do it, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s a country with really great beer and pastries.

Humour is my life saver. Okay my lovely Germans, don’t hate me for this one, but laughter is not exactly as common here as it is back home. You can check out my post on “Am I funny in Germany?” for more info on this, but I just don’t laugh as much in Germany. I’ve talked to quite a few other expats who say the same thing. For some of them it’s a case of just not being able to be as funny when speaking German (surprise, surprise), but things are taken pretty seriously here, and humour is there, but buried a bit deeper and it takes more time to pull it out. It takes a lot to impress a German, and it also can sometimes take a lot to get them to really laugh (this is a generalization of course since I’ve had fantastic laughs with many of my students and friends). So, some weeks when I’m having a really tough time I have to ask myself, “Have I laughed enough this week?” Most often the answer is no, and I then make sure to watch an episode of Modern Family or New Girl or ten or an episode of the Pod. F. Tompkast. I am happy to say that I laugh a lot with my students. Thank goodness for language mistakes that make a person bust a gut! Don’t worry….that post will come later.

You need to do all the things that made you happy back home. This might seem a bit obvious, but I’ve been learning this one the hard way. After the initial excitement and wonder of living in a new country wears off, suddenly real life sets in, but still at an intense level in the first year or two. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and down. All your feelings are intensified and you need a release even more than you would back home. The tough thing is it takes longer to get involved in your normal activities in a foreign country, but you gotta do it, whatever it may be. Go to the movies, play a musical instrument, join a sports team, eat your favourite food, do yoga, anything to let off steam and help you escape.

Balance is everything. I’m kind of ambitious I’ve come to realize. I love so many things, and so many people and think I can do it all. But, I’ve learned – I just can’t. Living abroad takes its toll on you in a big way. Everything takes much more energy than it does back home, particularly in that first year. So, it means you really have to be even more careful about balancing everything. As a freelancer it’s really easy to take on too much work because you know you need the money and you think you can do it all. But, being happy and balanced is much more important. Learning how to balance this all is probably one of my greatest challenges here (and in life in general) and I’ve learned it the hard way – three day migraine headaches will do that to you! So, when you are feeling burnt out in life, whether you are abroad or not, stop and re-evaluate and do something totally relaxing and fun. And remember, it’s okay to say a big fat, “No” sometimes.

I’m not the only one who takes months to get things done here. It’s so refreshing for me when I meet up with some of my other expat friends and they tell me things like “yeah, I’ve been meaning to buy a new bookshelf for six months,” or “I know I should go to the dentist, but I just….well…” Thank god I’m not the only one! I have errands that have been on my to do list for a year (I still really need to buy a stapler), sometimes it takes me all day to build up the courage or energy to do one simple task. I had to go to the bank the other day to change my address and cancel a payment and I’m not joking when I say I had to pump myself up for this for a good three weeks. I had even practiced the German I might need but in the end we had to finish the conversation in English. There are two areas where my language pride falls away immediately and I fall back to English – my money and my body. You don’t really want to mess up when it comes to either! So, I’m learning not to be so hard on myself for the little things.

Stereotypes are like postcards, they only show one quick snapshot of the whole truth. My students often love to ask me, “So, what do Canadians think of Germans?” So I usually tell them the first things that come to mind when I thought of Germany before, “Lederhosen, dirndls, beer, Bavaria, bread, Octoberfest, blondes, autobahn, BMW, WWII, Hitler, serious people, efficiency etc.” I had a discussion in class the other day about this and my students laughed and said, “Why does everyone think of Bavaria and Lederhosen?” And then slowly but surely each man in the class admitted that he owned a pair. But, the key is, sure, stereotypes are founded on something to start, but truly getting to know a culture is a much richer experience and once you get past generalizations and the surface, that’s when you fall in love with a new people and a new culture. I’m a firm believer that you can never truly feel at home in a foreign culture (I studied ethnomusicology or in other words, the study of music and cultures, in my graduate studies), but you can learn to love and appreciate it and deal with the things that drive you crazy. Just like I miss so many things about being back home, when I’m away from Germany I miss so many things as well. It’s the beautiful and terrible thing about living abroad. What you love becomes expanded, what you are used to changes and you can never go back to the person you were before. Your thoughts on life, your country, and people in general will forever be changed, and you develop a new hybrid-like cultural view of the world.

This past year has brought some of the hardest days you can imagine, many tears, a lot of times of feeling angry (usually in crowded train stations when people are pushing and shoving), but also some of the biggest emotional breakthroughs, some of the most fun and amazing times (and seriously awesome nights out), adventures, new and incredible people in my life and a new sense of my self and inner strength. I wouldn’t change this experience for the world. I have no idea what this next year might bring, let alone the next six months, but wherever I may end up, that’s where I’m supposed to be. Call it fate, call it just the development of self, whatever you want, but all I know is that this chance for me to live abroad is pretty incredible and brings new and unexpected people and opportunities into my life each and every day. I know I will always love my home and long for it, but for better or for worse, I was born with an adventurer’s soul and I may as well embrace it as fully as I can. As Helen Keller says, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

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