“Germans don’t have friends the way you do here,” Hannelore tells me as we sip our lemon ginger tea. “Here, you call someone a friend when you hardly speak to them. We call that bekannte, and you know their name, maybe where they live, and you won’t speak to them much. But when you make a freund, well, you’ll be freunde for the rest of your life.” She pauses, and then corrects the German that slipped out while explaining the difference. “German friends are the people you will be in touch with.”
I’m meeting with Hannelore for tea because she’s the only person I know from Germany and had lived in several of its provinces before coming to the United States with her husband and family. She’s thrilled to be talking about her homeland again- the things she loves, the things she misses, the places I must go- and I, like an already-soggy sponge, am attempting to absorb everything I can before I leave. As I nibble a chocolate cookie, I ask her more questions about what the people in “my” region are like. She starts telling me about festivals and the infamous Weihnachtsmärkte- Christmas markets- and before I know it my brain is spinning with the things I’m supposed to do and see. In spite of a minor language barrier- when hiking in the Alps, should I be looking for cottages to stay in or to admire?- it’s clear that this move is going to be one hell of an opportunity.
So far, that’s how I can best sum up the advice that’s been proffered by the several people I’ve spoken to about life in Germany: enjoy this opportunity. You’ll be so close to everything, they say. Go to this monastery- all of the German ones brew beers, but this one gets less tourist traffic and so you get to spend time chatting with the monks. When you hear “Achtung!” on the radio when you’re on the autobahn, it means someone’s driving the wrong way- listen for the exits they list so you can avoid them. Better yet, take the train. Make sure to visit Munich in time for their summer festival, but get your tickets in advance because it’s always crowded. And when you go to Bern, try not to be overwhelmed by the old feeling of the city. Regardless: wherever you go, don’t stay in a hotel. Stay in a zimmer frei, a free room, because that’s where the best experiences begin. Listening to Hannelore, it’s a little hard to keep all the wonderful advice in my poor exhausted brain!
As the information collects, though, it’s easier to ignore the anxieties that come with any big transition and instead focus on the beautiful, somewhat fantastic possibilities opening up for us by virtue of moving. When we want to do a weekend of camping, we can go to the Alps. Where we’re living, the Black Forest isn’t just a cake. Our honeymoon, as it stands right now, consists of getting in our car, driving to France, and seeing where the road takes us. We get to live a kind of dream that very few Americans ever do. A few days later, at my annual physical, my nurse practitioner will echo this sentiment when she talks about her eight years in Germany and says “You know, most people say they’d love to do this but that they’re too afraid. I never understood that.” In spite of the fact that I was recently feeling overwhelmed by the transition myself, it’s easy to sympathize with this viewpoint as I picture beautiful mountain hikes, picturesque Weihnachtsmärkte laid out with special treasures to bring home to family as Christmas presents, and spontaneous weekend getaways to ancient vineyards featuring the best of local food and drink. The best part of all these fantasies? Knowing that they can all come true.
On that day with Hannelore, we finish our talk as she brings several large books from her kitchen to the table where we’re sitting. In the last few moments we have before we must be present for yoga class, we leaf through their pages and look at photo after photo of old churches, rolling hills, and quaint homes. She explains to me that many places in Germany still look like this, even though these books are very old, and I should make sure to go see them. There’s a history there that we don’t really have here, I must understand, and in order to comprehend it I have to experience it. As we rise and walk towards the yoga studio, that word keeps ringing through my mind: experience. It’s a noun, something that happens to you, but it’s also a verb, and thus something that must be accomplished. The beauty of this advice- Hannelore’s and everyone else’s- is that it has all focused on the active aspect of this word. Regardless of what you do, they tell me, make sure to get out there and experience all that Germany has to offer.