LETTERS FROM BERLIN
★ ★ ★ ★
THE MANY LIVES OF AN EXPAT
By Annie Mark-Westfall
In Germany, the question ‘How are you?’ is not the meaningless throwaway that it is in the U.S. I was told this when I first arrived, but it was not until I worked in a German office that I truly understood. On my first Monday, I asked a coworker about her weekend. She responded that a urinary tract infection had plagued her on Saturday but slowly improved on Sunday. After a few more details, she asked about my weekend. I could only offer a meek, “Fine, thanks.”
I have since learned how to use this question as an opportunity to really connect with people. Germans are known, perhaps unfairly, for being cold or difficult to get to know. Now, when people ask how I am doing, I pause for a moment to consider the question, my audience, and what type of answer will help us build a deeper connection. How are you?
First, I first have to figure out which “you” is responding. My life has different bubbles, and I float between them, puzzled at how disparate and cleanly separated they are. Especially during winter, when I tend to hibernate, my internet use particularly reflects these bubbles.
My America bubble is my Facebook feed, hot with rage, disbelief, indignation. Online, I am a liberal troll, often staying up past midnight to leave angry emoticons and sarcastic comments on news stories. A highlight of my month was the Gothamist post that released White House phone numbers. I am a little sorry that I was not more eloquently prepared for such a special moment—but my husband’s impersonation of me screaming into the phone convinces me that I did ok. How are you? I left Steve Bannon a voicemail and called him a Nazi f*ck! It felt better than it should have.
My Mama bubble is the most visceral, swelling with love and giggles. Unfortunately, it threatens to completely overtake my Friends bubble. These days, some of my best friends are people who I have never met. Twenty American women with toddlers the same age as mine gather with me on an online forum. We have spoken almost every day for the past two or three years, confiding our deepest secrets, darkest thoughts, and celebrating our sweetest successes. In my Mama bubble, curfew is 6:30 pm; and I do a little dance when our kid sleeps past 5:00. How are you? Our toddler learned to say, “I love you!” and my heart might burst. Also, StephsMom54672 suggested a gentle sleep training method that is finally working for us.
The online moms group is an invaluable part of my Friends bubble, but it affects my deepest sense of self. I used to spend evenings at restaurants, concerts, and bars, in conversation with real people across the table from me, discussing current events, travel, books, art exhibits. Now, the rare evening out with a girlfriend is like a long drink of water for this parched, forgotten part of my soul. I like to pretend that becoming a mother has not changed me. The self-delusion is strong. How are you? I have been trying to finish the first book of Elena Ferrante’s series for three months, and decided it was easier just to go to Italy. We fly to Rome next week!
The Career bubble is thumping with activity but I dare not speak of it too much, lest it burst. After my son goes to bed, I spend my evenings on Skype calls with headquarters. On a good day, I hang up feeling somewhat hopeful and energized. How are you? Unfortunately, rhinos are probably going extinct…but I think we might have a real shot at saving elephants.
In my Expatriate bubble, the internet is my lifeline. It helps us maneuver the physical city and also its maze of bureaucracy. In particular, the English-speaking expat parents Facebook page provides invaluable guidance on every aspect of life. How are you? We found a great handyman who hung all our pictures. Now our apartment feels like home.
Most importantly, though, the internet connects me to family–the one and only thing I really miss about the U.S. (other than a good antiperspirant). Almost every day, I send the “digest” email to my son’s grandparents (the smitten retirees previously known as our parents). A tradition since his birth, the daily Digest includes a few cute photos, and a description of his latest antics (kissing Marie and biting Benjamin at daycare) and developments (learning to count – “two, three, five!”). The grandparents do not reply to the Digest, so we call them fairly often using FaceTime. How are you? I really miss my parents. But they are coming next week, and bringing my favorite deodorant.
As I start to consider the wider Family bubble, a letter with familiar cursive handwriting arrives from my 97-year-old grandmother. Her words are light and sweet. She regales us with jokes about needing a new refrigerator in order to fit all the pictures that we send; anecdotes from volunteering at the library and lunches for Hadassah; and reminds us to “just be happy.”
I need to find a pen and some paper, and respond. She will want to know how we are doing. Don’t worry, Grandma. We are very happy here. In today’s crazy world, Berlin feels like a protective bubble. But it is cold, and we are really looking forward to spring.
Annie Mark-Westfall graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio. As a former Fulbright grantee and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she views herself as a cultural ambassador. Her day job is with an international conservation organization.