I can’t believe it is now almost exactly eleven months since I set foot in this country. Since being here, Mein Kampf has been republished for the first time in decades, the refugee crisis has become a refugee embrace (in the case of Stuttgart, I have seen so much solidarity and action on the part of so many different institutions and individuals it would be hard to put it into words), Helmut Schmidt has died, and many a worldwide crisis has reached my corner of Stuttgart-Ost, from heartbreaking terrorist attacks to Brexit.
What have I learned? I’ve bored many with chronicles of weekends away and bureacratic nightmares, but as to what this year has taught me, I don’t think I’ve ever fully tackled that. So here goes.
- Work can be much more than a suited 9-5 experience
Me with lovely colleagues Christine and Alex
I don’t know at what point I decided that my job was going to be a dull, 9-5 nightmare but it turned out to be the part I enjoyed the most when my first few months were bleak and I was ready to hop back home (or rather, endure the twelve hour journey across half of Europe to get home). I’ve been lucky enough to have a superb team of colleagues who have found me a home, listened to me attempt to explain idioms, and been more than just colleagues. I could go to the office whenever I wanted, leave whenever I wanted, wear whatever I wanted. I got sung to on my birthday and made to listen to the Grinch being read out at our Christmas party, my essays were read and discussed with some particularly enthusiastic colleagues. Someone let it slip a surprise party had been organised for me this weekend the other day at lunch, and it made me feel rather warm inside.
I have really loved my time at Klett, and I think the experience has been one that has spoiled me – no office can be this nice, surely. I hope Anna, my follow-up, will enjoy the lunch breaks and the location, just by the beautiful Feuersee, as much as I have.
- Arrogance (and stubbornness) will stop you from enjoying yourself
“For the fear of being mistaken is the mistake in itself” – I should’ve listened more to this quote on the front of Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof
I was incredibly arrogant when this year started off. Going home is for weaklings. I refuse to speak anything but German this year. Lol I’m not going to sink to Sprachtandems. The list goes on. I booked a flight to London on my eighth day in Germany, I made 0 friends because of both my fear of doing social events with Germans and my refusal to speak English, and I then found out from someone I met at a colleague’s birthday they themselves had met through a tandem, only to become best friends.
I think it takes quite a bit of guts to admit you’ve made a lot of mistakes. The refusal to speak English and my continuous obsession with socialising abroad being too much / my German being too bad left me almost completely friendless – my main social contacts being my colleagues, and a lovely girl called Sydney who didn’t hate me for cancelling on her four times, and persevered to the point I came out of my shell. Scary things are often only scary in our minds, and if you really think you can spend a year anywhere without eventually meeting someone who speaks your language and finding that a comfort, you’re mistaken. I was mistaken. Do what scares you when you feel a bit braver, do what you think you’re too good for when being humble becomes easier. You’ll spend a lot of your time thinking what if otherwise – I know I did.
- Friendships last, but perspectives change
A pile of letters and presents on my birthday
One of the things I was most scared about was friendships wilting away. Somehow, even with a single Skype a term, and the fact we were no longer living/breathing/working together 24/7, my friendships stayed exactly the same. I will admit I put in a lot of effort to keep the friendship engine running smoothly: birthday cards, good luck letters for finals, postcards and, on one occasion, a plush pug delivered in fifth week. And this was often, although not always, mutual. Small gestures can go a long way – I remember bursting into tears at a postcard I got from Oxford from Ella.
But people change, and although I like to think I’ve stayed exactly the same person, this year has toughened me up quite a bit. Somehow, nothing seemed relevant to me anymore after arguing with someone in a post office or crying because locked out of my flat whilst my flatmate was on a train to Hamburg away for the entire weekend. When our bathroom flooded and I had to solve it by myself, when I lost my paycheck, and many different other crisis occasions, it wasn’t something many could relate to. It was hard to empathise with people whinging about essays when all I wanted to do was go home when I couldn’t. I envied people huddled in the library together, I felt crushed by the pressure of the year to be as good as people had made it out to be. Yet when I went back to Oxford in May, I couldn’t wait to leave – I was being driven up the wall by the palpable finals tension, the suddenly tiny city, the ridiculous unspoken rule that if you’re not on the verge of a mental and physical breakdown you’re not doing it right. It was all rendered worse by people telling me how much they envied me – all too easy to say when their own idea of my own year corresponded to a holiday catalogue crossed with visions of Berghain and Oktoberfest.
The supposed best year of your life is just a year like any other – with good bits, and horrible lows, and I think all linguists should be aware of this before they embark on a dreamy year gallivanting around Barcellona. There will be times you sob because you don’t know the word for “trip up” (me) and all you have to look forward to at the weekend is walking a Dalmatian (also me) and you will be so scared to tell someone in a bar you ordered a tea, actually, not a coffee, you just nodded anxiously because you really didn’t want to look like you couldn’t understand what was being said, you’ll be helplessly drinking that bitter coffee instead (yes, me). And the people who will understand this whole rollercoaster will be people in the same situation as you – not those back home, even if they love you to bits.
- Time alone is underrated
I’ve lost count of the amount of weekends I have spent alone by myself this year. After the hype of earning money and having friends in other places wore off slightly in March, I found myself doing a lot of reading and sleeping. Oxford recovery, if you will. For the first time in my life, I followed TV series. I wrote letters, I wrote journals, I went to the cinema by myself, I wandered around the Fluxus Galerie alone and sat in Schlossplatz earwagging conversations far more than I travelled. I spent hours sat in the Staatsbibliothek, flicking through old Focus magazines and Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults. It felt wonderful to know I had days to myself, sometimes – and it made me question whether my being a people person is all I am.
Of course, sometimes I just cried in bed, and sat indoors as it poured outside, blankly flicking through German Cosmopolitan, incapable of turning on the heating because the instructions were incomprehensible. Sometimes I ditched plans because I wanted to wallow. Sometimes, I didn’t leave my room for two whole days, and just watched the Inbetweeners back to front on both days on Youtube. But those were still my own choices, and indulging in them did me good. After years of entertaining others and chatting and being always up for a last-minute party, I took my time and did with it what I wanted to.
- Most people are lying about their year abroad
If I could list the worst Instagram posts I’ve seen this year, worst meaning the ones that made me feel terrible about myself and my year abroad, I think I’d be bitching about people til the day I turned thirty. It took me quite a long time to realise people would often be posting a beautiful sea view because it was the only thing they’d seen that day that hadn’t made them feel miserable. Others, boasting about Erasmus friends and ski trips, were being stalked home by strange men and having a terrible time at work. It is a wonderful wake up call to talk to the people behind the photos.
I wish I could drill into heads just how little social media can mean: if anyone looked at my own Facebook album, they’d think I’d had the time of my life too – and while there’s no denying I’ve seen some beautiful places, and done some really fun things, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t sniffing on the bus back home or wishing I were sat in a library the next day.
- Constant travelling may leave you feeling broken
I really hated Stuttgart in my first few months – grey, industrial, many a large rat lurking near the train station – and made sure to escape at every chance I got, staying with Oxford friends and taking infinite Postbus buses elsewhere in Germany. I remember sitting in my office in December longingly looking at my flights to Paris, booked for the 25th of February. David and I would Facetime for hours over what I would do when I got there, the difference being he lived there, and I was counting down the days to be there.
Life can’t be lived waiting for the next best thing – in my last few weeks in Stuttgart, I’ve realised just how little I know the town I live in, and how much beauty there is in parts I’ve never set foot in. I’m squeezing in museums and tours and wine paths and opera evenings in the last fortnight before I leave,wishing I hadn’t tried to run away so often. I would come back from travelling either relieved someone got me, or amazingly jealous: I remember being blown away when in Berlin by the fact Kitty had friends and favourite bars and above all by the fact she hadn’t left the city at all – she didn’t want to. Yet when I went to see Fran in icy Bonn, she truly understood just how hard it was for me – when these two experiences crossed paths, that was the start of my feeling at peace with myself. Things going wrong, yet both enduring them and fighting to make them better. In the last three months, bar a brief hiatus to Italy, I’ve stayed put, and I’ve loved it.
- I love this country more than I thought I did
Maybe it was when I found myself getting excited during the European Championships, maybe it was when I laughed at a man dancing in Lederhosen on a table in a pub, perhaps it was when I voluntarily ate Sauerkraut – living in Germany has been a joy, even if living in Stuttgart sometimes hasn’t. I have felt very affectionately about this country at times, and I have been proud to have chosen this language to learn.
Lastly, somewhat soppily, as ever, I have words of thanks.
Thank you to those who have stood by me this year: to those who have listened to me, read this blog (which turned into an attempt to see the funny side of awful situations, sometimes), to those who have written to me and told me to keep going, to the other linguists abroad who helped out when I had no clue what was going on (the ARD incident springs to mind).
To those who have encouraged me and come to visit me, to those who have believed in me and to those who have made Stuttgart better.
To Lilli for Munich, Kitty for Berlin, Fran for Bonn, Kate for Mainz, Holly and David for Paris, Ed for showing me where the best Biergarten in town was, Alex for Zürich, Ella for that brief but sweet dinner in a strange DDR restaurant in Leipzig.
To Chiara for always having the right words even if they weren’t the ones I wanted to hear.
And to me: because the person that got through this sometimes amazingly tough year was me, because I never decided to stop trying, and because I have taken this year and made it, no matter what, something special. I could’ve thrown the towel in, but I chose to stick it out, and it was the best decision I could have made – for that, I am proud of myself.
This post was inspired by Ella’s wonderfully eloquent Leipzig: things I’ve learned and things I’ve loved.