I Made It.

As of today, I have lived in Düsseldorf, Germany for one full year.

Despite my previous setbacks, I returned to Germany last February for another shot at building a new life. When I got to my AirBnB sublet in the Düsseldorf Rath neighborhood, I barely unpacked. I was already bracing myself for having to find somewhere else to lay my head, or worse yet another flight back to Cleveland. Unlike the elation and hope I was bursting with when I had landed in Hamburg – and Germany – for the very first time back in August of 2016, this time around I was worried, scarred by past disappointments and a rather murky view of the future.

But among the many twists and turns I hadn’t counted on were the people who would enter my life.

To my surprise, I discovered an English-speaking creative writing group which was really nothing short of a miracle. This would become my beloved oasis, my Land of Misfit Toys. Here I found my people, a wonderfully gifted, diverse and fun group of writers around whom I can just be my silly, weird self without fear of judgement. We bounce our quirky thoughts off of each other and are always open to any sort of crazy shit that comes flowing out of our brains. In this country full of such stern, serious people, they have been my godsend.

Then there’s Girl Gone International, a women-only expat group headed by my very good friend Mieke, a Dutch-German from the Netherlands who lives here with her sister Wiebke, another very good friend of mine. My first night meeting up with these ladies, I found myself drinking and laughing with women from all kinds of countries and backgrounds like we had known each other for years. With every GGI event I’ve attended since then – whether it’s drinks or brunch or Bollywood dancing – I’ve made more amazing friends and discovered more favorite places in this city than I could have ever imagined.

Even with these new people in my life, however, the anxiety that was knowing I still had no visa haunted me. Frustrated, I lamented that I would more than likely be forced to leave them as quickly as we met.

Life is funny that way, though. Just when I was fearing that I wouldn’t make it after everything I had been through, I was thrown yet another curve ball – one that was actually in my favor.

My boss finally handed me the work contract I needed to obtain my visa. And after long lines at the Ausländerbehörde, interviews with stone-faced German officers, waiting, nail-biting, crying, drinking, and more paper than any one person should ever deem necessary in the digital age, I finally had my three year residence permit in my hand. Soon after this came my current apartment in the middle of the city.

After a year and a half of bouncing around, living out of suitcases and feeling like I couldn’t really get comfortable anywhere, I was finally home.

I wrote the following back in November of 2015, right after I had made the bold decision to leave my hometown and everything I had ever known behind to find my blank slate:

“I’m jumping in knowing that it will be rough at first, I will be completely alone in a strange country fumbling to adapt to a culture similar-yet-different than mine. I will struggle to understand my neighbors, and I may unintentionally piss a few people off with my American-esque quirks and propensities. There will be times when I will feel achingly lonely, homesick, and wonder what the hell I have done.

But I also know this; I will not only survive, I will thrive. Because if anyone can throw themselves into a strange environment and make it the best decision I have ever made, I can.”

This excerpt has proven to be more than a little prophetic (I still get yelled at by old people for jaywalking), but more importantly I was absolutely right. I didn’t just survive. I forged new friendships with the most incredible people, slowly built back my stability, and eventually learned how to live in this odd little country.

I made it. I’ve thrived, and will continue to do so. And I have to say, I am just a little smug toward those who were so certain that I’d never do it – whether it was the move to Germany itself or sticking it out. They doubted me, underestimating my gumption or competence or determination, whatever fed their negativity. I have but a single message for those people:

Eat crow.

As for everyone who offered me encouragement, love, shoulders to cry on, ears to talk off, brains to pick and invaluable advice throughout this entire adventure and continue to do so, you have meant more to me than I can put into words. I am boundlessly grateful to have you in my life.

 

 

 

Appearances

***This is a short story I wrote during an exercise in my creative writing group. In the spirit of the Halloween season, I decided to make it a spooky one. I intend on finishing this at some point, though.

Enjoy. 🙂

 

The grass had grown over the stone steps, an observation I made in mild disbelief when I remembered how meticulously my dad had kept this lawn. I remembered the roar of the lawn mower every Sunday, and the stench lingering from the monthly application of pesticide. His front lawn was his pride and joy, which I now realize as an adult was his way of portraying to the world that everything was fine.

Everything was not fine.

Everything was never fine.

Beyond this lawn, up the stone steps and into the house one would see – if a stranger ever got that far, which rarely happened – another, much darker reality. The denial on my father’s face. The desperation in my mother’s eyes. My often fearful expression.

Today I made the ascent up those overgrown steps and pushed my way into the battered, weakened door of my childhood home. No one had lived here in at least a decade, and the neighbors had declared it a nuisance.

For me, it was far more than a nuisance. It was the source of many sleepless nights lingering well into my adulthood.

I gingerly climbed the slightly rotted wooden stairs up to where my brother’s old bedroom was, my footsteps creaking loudly as the weakened oak gave slightly from years of neglect. The floors were caked in dust and grime, and I noticed even pidgeon shit thanks to the broken windows caused by neighborhood vandals over the years. Graffiti and gang symbols decorated the halls, scrawled over my mother’s carefully-hung wallpaper.

I shut my eyes just for a moment before I stepped into the room that once belonged to my brother. As much as I had to know if it was still there, I felt as if I couldn’t bear to see it again.

But no, I had come this far already. I forced my eyes open and aimed them at the back wall in search for it.

And there it was.

Those four words scrawled on the wall in my mothers devastated, helpless handwriting, just above where the headboard of my brother’s bed used to be.

Her final words to us. To the world.

I can’t do this.

My blood ran as cold as it did the day I found them. Familiar emotions washed over me as I remembered the sight of my mother’s lifeless body slumped and bleeding over my brother’s, the bullet hole still fresh  and square in the middle of his forehead.

The emotional cocktail continued to pulse through my body – Shock. Devastation. Anger.

And relief.

It was over. It was really over and my mother had sacrificed herself to make sure it would be, too horrified with herself for what she had done to allow herself to live.

For 20 years I had repeatedly explained – pleaded – with the ghost of her, my memories of her, that my brother would have killed her anyway. Just as he had tried to kill me.

The script of what could have been replayed in my mind everyday, each time with a different outcome, each time ending with her still being with us.

Writing On The Wall

October 2015

He’s still at the bar.
I know he’ll be home soon, but lately he’s been frequenting more and more.
I know there’s a bartender he likes.
He looks at her with a look.
The way he used to look at me.
He doesn’t look at me like that anymore.
Lately he’s told me as such.

 
But when he gets home he’ll smile at me expecting dinner
Because that’s the only good I am to him now.
And I have to cook for him, because if I don’t he becomes shitty.
So I cook dinner for him.
For a man who just a couple weeks ago told me straight to my face that he

No longer loves me.
At least, “Not like he used to.”
But he really didn’t need to tell me that.
I already knew.
It was cruel of him to say.
But he figures, “Ah well, it’s been six years. Maybe we should try to work it out.”
Like it’s nothing.
So day after day, night after night, I wake up next to this man.
Attempt to be affectionate.
Attempt to do nice things for him.
Cook for him.
Being careful to clean up after myself so as to not trigger another “talk”.
Then I go to bed next to him.
We sleep, close to each other yet miles away.
Everyday I’m unsure of my immediate future.
Do I have to start packing?
Will I have to live with my mother?
Dear God.
This sucks.

He’s home now. So I’m expected to make dinner.

Of course. That’s what I’m here for.

Solitude

March 2016

I took this picture when the gravity of everything finally sunk in, the height of my grieving. At the time, I was technically homeless, housesitting for my friend while he was away in Asia. I had no real solid foundation to which I could root myself, my entire life was perpetually “up in the air”.

This was a moment when I felt as if I didn’t have a friend in the world; my phone, Skype, email and Facebook Messenger void of signs that anyone cared about my existence.

Hell, I didn’t even get to have my dog.

I wanted this moment documented. I wanted something I could look back on so I could promise myself that I would never feel this way ever again. A reminder that this was the lowest I was going to get.

But then, there was another side to this coin.

2016 had begun in the wake of loss. Part of what I lost through that shitstorm was my fear. What did I have to be afraid of, after all? My fear of the unknown – unknown places, an unknown future – just seemed silly at this point. Obviously, judging by what I had been through, the future is uncertain no matter how solid you think things are.

So yeah, Germany? Bring it on.

Because really, thats the only thought that kept me going.

What About Your Friends?

November 24, 2015

One morning I groggily trudged down the stairs to make my morning breakfast of an omelette and oatmeal. I sat down at the dining room table, and that’s when I noticed that there were a pile of boxes next to me that hadn’t been there before. Just glancing at the top box, I could see my copies of Michael Symon’s “Five Ingredients” and Aaron Sanchez’s “Simple Food, Big Flavor” peeking out of the not-very-closed flap.

John, while I was working and staying away in the spirit of avoidance and to digest this awful situation, had been packing my things for me.

Uh-uh. No.

My fury steadily rose as I looked down at these haphazardly packed boxes of my belongings.

How dare he do this without so much as a discussion?

How dare he pack MY stuff behind my back?

And doing a halfassed, shit job of it in the process?

The anger heaved against my sternum as if it were trying to break free to go upstairs and kick his ass.

I made myself calm down into a moderately civil state and waited until he was out of the shower. He came downstairs and settled into his usual nook on the couch (I swear, there should have been a permanent imprint of his ass on that cushion. Thank God it wasn’t memory foam). I slowly walked over to him, careful to keep my temper in check.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi!” he said, smiling.

I’ll smack that smile right off your face, you prick.

Easy, Laura.

“Don’t do that.” I blurted out, pointing to the pile of boxes. I mean, Jesus. Aside from this being a total dick move, how was I supposed to find anything?

“Do what?” he asked, seeming confused. But coming from the man with the master poker face I couldn’t tell whether or not he was just playing dumb.

I cleared things up and told him – clearer and less politely this time – to stop packing my shit. I added that he was going to have to be patient.

“I have been,” he responded. “But it’s been over two weeks now. This has gone on long enough. We both have to get on with our lives.”

I had no words. I just stood there staring at him in disbelief. Did he seriously think that I could just magically pack up 6 years worth of shit and be gone in two weeks?

“You know,” I started, now trying very hard not to lose it. “this may come as a shock to you, but this isn’t exactly easy for me.”

“I know that.” he coldly acknowledged with an expression telling me that he also didn’t care.

“YOU were the one who wanted this, not me!” I felt my voice grow louder and start to crack with the threat of tears. At this point, I stopped caring about being calm. I was baffled at how could he be this horrible to me, a woman he had spent 6 years of his life with. He was treating me like I had been the one who was leaving him for some insipid bimbo from work.

“I know that too.” He nodded again with the same indifferent expression.

WELL THEN WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!

I knew I had to maintain a modicum of cool if I didn’t want to see this escalate into an all out War of The Roses shitshow of insults and destroyed property. But I was furious.

“Well don’t you worry.” I mockingly assured, eyes narrowed in contempt, my vexation bleeding through my voice in spite of my vow for civility. “I’ll be out of your life as fast as I can.”

“Okay,” he nodded and agreed as if I had told him I was going to the grocery store.

Douchebag. Fuck him.

I know I didn’t deserve this treatment. What had I done, after all? Nothing, that’s what. It was his idea to buy this house, his idea for us to live together and merge all of our stuff together like Ozzy and fucking Harriett. Hell, it was him who had to practically drag me kicking and screaming out of the adorable, cheap little Lakewood apartment I loved where I happily (and stubbornly) enjoyed my independence a good two years into our relationship.

But I also know that if I start sinking to his level and getting nasty, this will go downhill to places I really didn’t need it to go at this point in time. For my sake, and possibly his.

Later, he came home and again took that same place on the couch, this time eating a bowl of the wretched canned soup he had been eating in lieu of my home cooking. I smirked at this thought, knowing he will never have so much as a bite of his favorite dishes of mine ever again. My pulled pork and pho were forever gone to him, he’d now have to suffer with his preservative-laden Campbell’s Can-O-Crap.

Heh.

Eat shit.

Literally.

I approached him again.

“I’m sorry for getting angry before.” I apologized, although I knew I had every right to be angry.

“It’s okay,” he accepted. “I was only trying to help.”

Textbook John. Too passive to admit to me that he was trying to send me a glaring signal to get the hell out of his house, he takes the innocent tone of “trying to help”. To keep things civil I played along.

“I know.” I responded. “But you know this isn’t easy for me.”

“I know that,” he acknowledged.

You just don’t care

Without another word, as speaking to him would clearly lead nowhere, I climbed the stairs back up to my room. I had a very-much-needed Taco Tuesday date at Barrio with my gal pal since sixth grade, Tam.

We had far too many chips and tacos, and as you can imagine the tequilla flowed as my longtime friend manned her damage control post by keeping the both of us drunk, happy and tearing my unworthy ex a new one.

She came to the decision that we needed to make up a really, really bad nickname for John. The last time I had done something like that I was about 10 years younger and the name sounded more like a spasm of Tourette’s. But the thought of it made me feel better, and so did Tam’s enthusiastic contempt for the man who had hurt her friend.

Maybe I’m luckier than I thought.

Afterwards, because we were drunk and my friend’s chocolate shop was only a block away, we decided that it was imperative that we stop in for a visit. As I was hoping, Paul was working, mixing brownie batter as we walked in. It was good to see him, but when he asked how I was doing Tam wasted no time telling him her opinion of John and what should be done to his genitals. I could tell this made him squirm a little. He was clearly uncomfortable with my situation and even made the subtle point of reminding me that he became friends with us both at the same time.

Either Tam didn’t notice his discomfort or didn’t care, because she continued to go on in detail about how hard she wanted to punch John in the face and exactly how many times.

Seriously one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

She went on ranting, and I watched her, smiling wide with gratitude. This wonderful person had my back, and if the tables were turned I’d totally have hers.

We collected our chocolates, said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. When I eventually got home, the tone she had set for the night almost acted as a force field against the heaviness that now permeated this house. Maybe it was my mood, maybe it was the margaritas, but I felt better than I had in weeks.
I brushed my teeth, crawled into bed and fell asleep watching old episodes of Sex In The City.

I think I’m going to be okay.

Germany – Take 1: Hamburg

August 9th, 2016

 Two months premature to my original plan, my plane landed in Hamburg Flughafen. Even though leaving that much earlier to be with a man I had never actually met was an enormous risk, I was excited for what the future held. Also terrified, anxious to the point of nausea, and not to mention harboring more than a shred of annoyance at the smarmy American douche seated in front of me. He was the typical asshole caricature one would encounter on any flight: staying reclined the entire time, obnoxiously making out with his out-of-his-league girlfriend 6 inches from my face, and rude to the flight staff while making inappropriate comments about the “sexiness” of their Icelandic accents.

Gross.

I thought about actually using the barf bag tucked into the back of his seat, both to ease my nerves and to make the two of them feel just as repulsed as I was. The thought made me feel a little better. But I had spent too long primping and carefully applying my makeup in the minuscule airplane restroom to ruin it.

Besides, by the time I stepped off the plane neither the gross man nor his bimbo girlfriend mattered; I had my whole new life ahead of me. After living through a year of sadness, what awaited me on the other side of that gate represented a hope for happiness and love. Despite wearing three inch heels, I practically ran to collect my luggage as they clacked along on the shiny tile floor.

Is my hair okay? 

Maybe I should touch up my lip gloss.

No time, Laura. Just go!

I wrestled an airport-issue dolly from the rack and made my way over to the luggage carousel, which seemed to take an eternity to add my bags to the rotation. Twenty excruciating minutes later my bike, three suitcases and my carry-on bag were hurriedly piled onto my luggage cart. Smiling in excitement and shaking with nerves, I made my way over to the exit.

He’s on the other side of that door.

Just a few more steps.

My enthusiastic gait was interrupted by a friendly German officer asking to see my passport. He fired off the standard questions; Where was I from? Have I been to Germany before? Why was I there? Was I carrying more than 10,000EUR in cash? He stared at my passport in silence for a long minute, which made me a nervous. Immediately my paranoia took center stage in my brain.

Does he suspect that I’m trying to move here? Will they force me onto the next flight back like they do to people on those border patrol shows?

After 11 hours of traveling, my nerves were just too shot for me to be rational.

He handed my passport back to me and gave me a nod of approval.

“You’re making my job too boring!” He joked in his deep German accent, and I laughed with relief. A herd of tourists brushed past us just then, collectively singing a song in some other language. We exchanged glances and shrugged.

He then directed me to the other exit door leading to the receiving area so to bypass the slow-moving chorus. Suddenly, this overwhelming jolt of excitement quaked through my veins as I remembered that Matthew was waiting for me on the other side of that door. I couldn’t have pushed my mountain of luggage through that exit fast enough. Craning my neck in all directions looking for him, I scanned the faces of people awaiting the arriving passengers. Some of them were smiling and holding flowers and balloons while others stood there expressionless, displaying names scrawled on paper. I didn’t see him, though. I had never seen him in person, but after months of Skyping and exchanging photos I felt I could easily pick the real life version of him out of a crowd. But the more faces I saw, the more of them weren’t his.

 Where is he?

 Maybe I can’t see him because he’s shorter than he let on?

 What if he’s really short? Like, a midget?

 Is he really a midget?

 Stop it, Laura.

My thoughts then wandered to more realistic worries.

 Did he change his mind?

 Oh God. I hope he didn’t change his mind.
The rickety cart, piled high with my packed-up life, wobbled and groaned as I fought to navigate it. The worn wheels petulantly refused to be guided in the direction I needed them to go, at times just stopping in mid-roll as if in protest to the hefty amplitude of shit I chose to bring with me to this country. I know I had packed too much. The $150 overage charge from the airline had made me well aware of this fact. But after that, a long flight and months of waiting for this moment I wasn’t about to take any shit from a goddamn buggy. Wrestling and negotiating with each push, I somehow managed to steer this rolling episode of “Hoarders: Buried Alive” over to the other side of the gate. I continued my search and skimmed the gaggle of people waiting for their loved ones.

And there he was. Even though he had his back to me I recognized him immediately. His broad-shouldered, 6’4 frame towered over the crowd, watching the other door in search of me.

Definitely not a midget.

 And no, Laura, he didn’t change his mind.

I smiled and silently laughed at my ridiculousness.

After all this time, effort and baggage wrangling I wanted to bound over to him and throw my arms around his neck in elation. But instead, I had a playful thought. I wanted to see if he’d recognize me. If I just casually stood next to him not saying a word, how long would it take? His back still to me, I attempted to slowly creep forward, thinking I would somehow manage to sneak up on him while dragging this enormous screeching monstrosity along with me.

I got within about 5 feet of him when he turned around. Our eyes met and he smiled wide, moving toward me with his long arms outstretched. He was just as adorably boyish in person, with his smiling dimples more pronounced and his eyes just a slightly greener shade of brown than his pictures had let on. He had a sort of humility about him that hadn’t translated across our Skype chats, which I found instantly endearing. He kissed me on the cheek and pulled me into his embrace, where we stayed for a long time. His hug was warm and genuine, the kind I could just sink into and never want to let go.

He helped me navigate the dolly over to the taxi stand, and as I took those first steps into my long-sought new life my heart soared. This new place, a blank canvas, was waiting. I could barely contain my curiosity as to what the future would bring.