Sunrise

It was a tough winter. It was long, dark, lonely and isolating. I managed to get some fresh air once in a while with the occasional trip or visitor, but I spent the majority of these last months struggling. It’s safe to say I was depressed. I had so little energy or passion that I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I was eating poorly and sleeping all the time. I was waiting lethargically for one day to pass into another. In social situations, I would retreat into myself and things would proceed around me in a blur.

Although I proclaimed the dawn of spring one sunny day back in March, that day was followed by another month of deep winter and left me feeling defeated. Meanwhile, my short-term subletting agreement was about to end and I would need to find a new place to live. I started looking far too late and found myself three days from being without a home. I felt like I was out of options. I inquired at a hostel across from the train station and learned that my budget could afford me a bunk in a 10-person dorm room for a few weeks. If I couldn’t find a new place by then, I feared I wouldn’t have the willpower to finish out my Fulbright year. I could almost taste my failure, and I was more despondent than ever.

Then suddenly, like a burst of oxygen to my drowning spirit, everything changed. Friends who had been out of town on holiday returned for the new semester. They sympathized with my desperate situation and promised to help me find a place to live. And magically, within 24 hours, they had found me a room in a “Verbindung,” which is the German equivalent of a frathouse. A few days later I was moving in, the fraternity brothers helping me carry my things into their cozy villa by the river. Overhead shone the big, yellow sun, an old friend who existed only in memory. It felt like a warm symbol of better days to come. And indeed, it was. That evening I was warmly welcomed by my new housemates, and over the next few days I jumpstarted my body with picturesque jogs beneath newly-sprouting leaves along the river. Everything was suddenly lining up for me. I had just one more problem to resolve, and that was to find a job for my return to the United States.

A few days later, I awoke around 3am from a funny dream. Like I often do, I reached for my computer to surf the internet until I could fall back asleep. But I opened up my email and got a sudden burst of adrenaline. While I was sleeping, the German American Chamber of Commerce had sent me an email offering me a 1-year paid internship in their San Francisco office. It is a German-speaking office and the position is market entry consulting for German companies looking to establish themselves in the United States. Essentially, this was my dream internship. They were asking me to start August 1, exactly one month after I return to the U.S., conspiring perfectly with my plan to spend a few weeks with my family at home in New Hampshire. It seemed so ideal.

My knee-jerk reaction was to share the news with Michael, one of my closest friends from college who is in law school in San Francisco. He was on Skype and eagerly answered my video chat. After a few minutes of exchanging various versions of “yippee!”, I asked him about possible living arrangements in San Francisco. I knew he was moving into a new apartment, and we had talked about the possibility of my coming out there and us living together. He told me he had signed a lease agreement for an apartment downtown, that he was looking for a roommate, and that living together sounded like a lot of fun. To top it off, his lease starts August 1. We googled the address and learned the commute to the German American Chamber of Commerce is a mere 12 minutes. And thus, minutes after I learned I had been offered the internship, I already had an apartment in San Francisco with a close friend!

I then remembered that Marie, a German friend of mine studying in Berlin, would be interning in San Francisco at Germany Trade and Invest, the sister office of the German American Chamber of Commerce, which is located on the same floor in the same building. I was already imagining going on lunch break together and getting after-work drinks. I later learned that she had found an apartment, too, and it would be a stone’s throw from Michael and me. And aside from Marie, I have a handful of other great friends in the Bay Area I can’t wait to connect with. It was all working out so perfectly. Fate, fate, fate!

I knew with all the excitement that I was not getting back to sleep. It was still dark outside, but I looked at the clock and realized the sun was about to rise. So I put on my jacket and climbed up to the chapel on the hill behind the frathouse. I sat myself up on ledge and, for the first time since arriving in Würzburg, I watched the sunrise. The symbolism was palpable as the morning light climbed up over the horizon and glinted off the gold-topped steeples and red brick rooftops. It was just me up there on that big hill, and the sun was rising before me, echoing the promise and renewal in my own life. The dark winter was over. The helplessness was over. My life was blooming into spring flowers and I was truly alive again. This was everything I had been waiting for.

So here I am now, with just under two months left of my Fulbright grant. And as far as I can see, it’s smooth sailing from here. I am resolving to make the most of every day, to truly enjoy this golden period of my year. I worked hard for this and I endured a lot to make it to this point. I am proud of myself and proud that I will end this experience on a high note.

I came into this knowing it would be challenging, but I was confident that the overall trajectory would be positive and fulfilling. I lost that confidence somewhere along the way, but things have worked out more perfectly than I dared to hope for. Cheers, world.

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Linus and Rasmus

Rasmus and LinusThere are two Swedish house guests staying at my friend’s Berlin apartment at the same time as I am. 20-something-year-old guys with Swedish style. They have chosen to move from Gothenburg to Berlin and they arrived Wednesday night. They are couchsurfing until they find a place. Their names are Linus and Rasmus.

Linus has relatively long, thick, dark hair and light olive skin. He has big brown eyes, well-groomed facial scruff and a smile that spreads wide from cheek to cheek. He has a rail-thin, wiry build, yet he doesn’t exercise. In fact, he says he went to the gym only once during a one-year membership and it was to use the sauna. He has a rare boyishness and sweetness about him. He seems to be the one with financial stability. He develops pop-up advertisements that trick people into registering to win a free prize. He asked me if I think this is dishonest work. I told him I can’t decide.

Rasmus has light hair, light skin and a square face with a fluffy beard. He has a solid build, but he’s worried he’s growing a beer belly like the older men in his family. He enjoys marijuana, although more to consume in teas and baked goods than to smoke. He told me he ate a space cake before the flight from Sweden to Berlin. He got really high; Linus says it was pretty funny. Rasmus tells great stories about life up in the northern lands. He said there was a lady in his remote apartment building who the tenants referred to as “the witch.” Apparently she throws people’s clean laundry in a pile on the floor and Rasmus left her a note telling her to go fuck herself. He also said that when he was 7 years old, his stern Finnish grandfather told him he was missing an index finger because he had eaten it while lost in the woods. He said this grandfather is dead now and that they never had a warm relationship.

Linus and Rasmus will miss their friends, like M’Benjamin, whose name was Benjamin before they forged his signature and legally changed it as a prank. They agree this was a very funny joke. They are fresh off the plane in Berlin and excited to begin their lives in the coolest city in Europe. They’re meeting new people and new places. They’re balancing partying and hangovers with apartment viewings and bureaucratic visits. They’re on a mission to succeed. They said there is a Swedish “burial” tax taken directly out of their earnings, because they will eventually die and the state will need to bury them. Perhaps this financial commitment to death inspires them to make the most out of life.

Rosi’s

Some observations at Rosi’s in Berlin.

Graffiti fridge. Oven and hood. Giant record console and old 70s tv.
Table and stools. Orange- and red-fleck linoleum floor.
Lace chandelier over a single yellow bulb.

Graffitied 70s wallpaper. Old vacuum cleaner leaning against the wall. Candles. Paneled ceiling. Microwave, pots and a pitcher on top of a cabinet. Room has an orange glow.

Contemplated outside staring at the moon, stars and jet streams. Warming up in the warm kitchen hearing the music filter through. Grooving.

Fulbright Inspiration in Berlin

Today marked the end of the 2013 Fulbright Conference in Berlin. These five days were some of the most action-packed I’ve had in a while and I’m still swept up in an emotional excitement that I can’t quite put a finger on. I’d like to share my impressions of the event.

One of the most pervasive emotions throughout the whole conference was the sense that I was in the company of incredibly bright, talented and accomplished people. Over 500 Fulbrighters gathered in Berlin from around Europe. There were other English Teaching Assistants like myself, Masters and PhD students, professors and artists from all disciplines. The five days were a constant stream of socializing and networking over coffee, food or wine (depending on time of day). There couldn’t have been a more inspiring group to be a part of, and we shared a mutual respect for one another’s accomplishments.

They also put us up in a really nice hotel and made sure we were never without food or drink. After months of scraping by on my Fulbright budget, it was a marvelous change of pace to enjoy a room on the 24th floor of the Park Inn, breakfast and dinner buffets and a ceaseless flow of beer and wine. All of the networking and brainstorming were particularly enjoyable in this cushy atmosphere.

The program was a mix of panel discussions and working groups on European topics such as the sovereign debt crisis, the higher education system and American vs. European news media. These sound like discussions I’ve had in the classroom at college, but the difference here was that what we came up with seemed to matter. Government officials in attendance were actually interested in the ideas and solutions we put forward. How cool.

The social atmosphere was eclectic and rich. It was like college, or study abroad, or a summer program. We were all in it together. After months of being varying degrees of isolated in posts across the continent, we were once again surrounded by people like ourselves. People who understand what we are doing here and are having experiences similar to our own. People who speak our language and share our transatlantic perspective. In this setting, we got a break from being “foreigners” for a few days.

Overall, I am honored, humbled and inspired to have taken part in this year’s Berlin Fulbright Conference. I feel rejuvenated by the whole experience. My only regret is that it’s now over.

 

 

Victory over Winter

At long last, the sun rides in on its legions of horses to do battle with grey clouds, bringing an end to winter’s siege of shivering Franconia. The biting frost that had crept its way up over the stone bastions of the Fortress Marienberg now melts in defeat, dripping into the waters of the River Main and its glistening reflection of a blue- and white-streaked sky. First with caution and then with reckless abandon, sun-starved bodies emerge from winter refuge to breathe life back into shriveled lungs, a vernal rebirth for which many had lost hope. The streets and squares and gardens fill up like hospitals, their patients gluttonous for the vitamin-rich medicine of sun.

I am one of these patients and I marvel at how quickly the medicine grants its cure. After the darkest German winter in 43 years, the desperation and hopelessness is swiftly swept away and replaced with a liveliness of heights matched only by the depths of recent lows. The flow of blood in my veins, which until now was but a trickle, pumps again with vigor. My body and soul have received a much needed jumpstart and I feel truly alive for the first time in months. How good it is to be alive.

Over these months I have yearned for happiness, but happiness is relative. As they say: how can we know joy if we haven’t known pain? When days of sadness are but a distant memory, how can we appreciate what it means to be happy? As deep and dark as winter can be–and this one has been a superlative of both–it always has a happy ending. Even if we freeze in place, the world keeps on revolving and swings us back into motion. And though we may feel alone in those dark months, spring will envelop us in a web of those other hearty organisms that also made it through despite the odds. If this life is a fight for survival, winter is this fight’s yearly reminder and we are its perennial victors. As we spring back into life, we claim this victory together.

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Winter Blues

It’s been a long time since my last post, because I’ve been in somewhat of a winter lull. It’s cold outside; the sky goes from dark to gray to dark again. I feel somewhat lost. My friends have been mostly studying for exams since Christmas and are now home on break. I’m left rather alone and bored.

I’m also broke–broker than I’ve ever been before. This stipend I’m getting is not nearly enough for me to live the way I’m used to. I’m eating shitty frozen food because it’s cheap…you are what you eat, right? No wonder I’m gray and blah. I mean, if it tastes better when you cover it with mayonnaise, there must be something wrong. I need to feed myself better.

I am, though, beginning to understand seasonal depression and I think I’m vulnerable to it. It’s like I have to fight to feel happy when staring up at a thick, overcast sky. The world is just so unwelcoming when it freezes like it has this German winter. It’s a violent, hopeless place that makes you run from fire to fire before you freeze with it. It’s ominous, like we’re all stuck in some cosmic prison–and we’re vulnerable prisoners. I feel if the world should end, it should be during winter.

There was just so much going on in my life down in New Orleans that I’m shocked by the current stillness. I used to spend nearly all of my time with friends, and our lives together were rich with passion. The social life I had there seems unmatchable from where I sit now, and it’s hard for this 22-year-old to accept that his life has grown lamer.

I’m also coming into the second half of my grant period and, just like last year before graduation, I don’t know what’s coming next. It’s still a little ways off, but I remember all too well how quickly those months slipped away and left me suddenly facing “the real world.” I managed to escape it for a year to come to Germany, but now it’s time to make something happen. I’m nervous, I’m unsure, and I’m afraid of being overwhelmed. Fleet Foxes really says it best, though. Helplessness blues.

Here

This is a creative piece, based on a nightmare.

You were living art. You moved like a smile, muscles, bones, exquisite soul in full expression. As you strode among the hard surfaces of Here, your slender legs propelled you with a grace belonging to no man or woman. You were immaculate form. You embodied no corruption. Gender is corrupt.

Music of the true artists danced among us. We followed the sound to a door guarded by a velvet rope. I knew the place. I knew its rules. But I chose to forget them. I chose to forget the bouncer, my teacher, with his lessons and his examinations. His exacting rules of existing Here. We passed this exam, one you did not know we cheated. I knew. I saw him covet you, mistake you for my She. I chose to ignore. I chose to forget.

Inside, we existed together. Our souls music, we reverberated through the air. To the Others we were Boy and Girl. I smiled at this. I am sorry.

Back outside in the cool night air. For a moment, I forgot we were different. But Here, they don’t let you forget. The cold metal barrel was pressed against the back of your head. You didn’t make a sound.

“Bring the rope”–the harrowing voice of the bouncer. The length of soft, stuffed fabric. I should have known this is how it would end. But I had wanted to ignore, to forget. I thought I owed it to you. Or maybe I was selfish. I followed into the park, the unwilling henchman. Carrying the lethal weapon of “in” and “out.”

Under the canopy of a manicured cypress tree he made me watch as he squeezed the red velvet around your gentle neck. Grisly how quickly the life vanished from your eyes. After you were gone, the bullet didn’t hurt much.

I shouldn’t have brought you Here. You were conceived in a better world. Here, I couldn’t save you. Here, I couldn’t save myself.

Our vigilante left our bodies floating in the man-made lagoon. Our souls hovered a moment among an Earth manipulated by men into unforgiving forms. Then we vanished. We didn’t belong Here.