Guten Tag

In which the author spends a lot of time perfecting her deer-in-headlights expression

I recently applied for and got an offer for a research position based in Germany, with additional fieldwork opportunities in Finland. I’ve never even visited Germany—I have a German last name, but very little heritage to go with it—but my partner and I decided to take the leap and move overseas. This decision was followed by the requisite months of packing, paperwork, spending time with family and friends, and squeezing in a three-week trip to Nepal, for reasons.* Just after Christmas, we started off on our newest adventure. 

After a rather long sequence of security lines, plane flights, more lines, more security, more flying, taxis, trains, and general confusion, we arrived at a place where neither of us spoke the dominant language, hauling precisely 112 kilograms of luggage.** This luggage (6-8 bags, depending on how tightly we packed things into other things) spent the next three days piled across half of an otherwise respectable hotel room, as we wandered around town, picked up the keys to our apartment, and waited for the New Year’s holiday to be over so we could buy a few things. Like bread. And lights. And a bed. ***

The nice thing about moving to a place where you are completely clueless is you get to learn a lot really quickly. In our first week here, we’ve learned that when you step on the bus you’re expected to name the exact stop you’re traveling to; that despite its pronunciation “rathaus” means the city hall; and finally that just because you know how to say “I would like bread and water please” does not grant understanding of the first sentence pleasantly babbled at you when you walk into a restaurant, which might be “would you like a table for two?” or “please choose whichever seat you like” or “isn’t it cold out today” or even “if you’re too stupid to understand German then we’d really rather not deal with you today so please leave.”**** 

We’ve also learned that to get a phone plan you need a German bank account, and to get a bank account you need to be certified at the city hall^ as a resident, and to be certified by the city you need a special signed piece of paper from your landlady that she didn’t give you with the normal rental contract. See? We’re making progress, even if most of it is backwards. 

All of this is to say that upcoming posts will likely be Europe-dominated in pictures^^ (and clueless-traveler-dominated in text). The style of this post (with footnotes) was inspired by Robin McKinley’s blog, except for the subtitle which is A. A. Milne. Tschüss!

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*Photos to come soon. ish. 

**Plus of course a little extra, because we figured they probably wouldn’t weigh our backpacks so that’s where we carried all the heavy electronics. 

***The bed and light acquisitions took one day longer than planned (see note about New Year’s holiday and every store being closed) so we spent the first night in our apartment cooking and eating by flashlight, and sleeping on a rug that was hauled back from IKEA via two long bus rides. Much warmer than our last camping trip! 

****Nor, in fact, does it successfully acquire you normal water in a glass, but rather various iterations of sparkling water or tiny bottles of mineral water, none of which you actually wish to drink. 

^Rathaus

^^Yes, yes, and Nepal

Fly away home

 

Once again I’m staring at a calendar, watching my final days on the Olympic Peninsula flash past me. As excited as I am to return to my main research work and life in California, this place excels at being hard to leave. I’ve never called Washington home, but these mountains, and particularly the project on the Elwha, capture my heart.

My focus on this project is the vegetation, but as wonderful as it is to see valley turning green and the trees shooting skyward, I’ve been even more amazed by the transformation of the river itself. Now that the dams are completely removed and the silt has washed down to the delta, the Elwha has come alive. Each section of fieldwork I wrap up is a bittersweet victory, as I prepare to leave this shining, shifting river, which after almost a hundred years of constraint, is finally flowing free.

 

Photo: Mt Shasta, taken on the trip up here. I am in fact not flying home, but driving for fourteen hours, past some very pleasant scenery.

Diwali at the Chapel

My school’s Hindu Life Program holds an annual Diwali celebration within the university chapel. It’s a wonderful celebration of the Festival of Light, full of color, thoughtful words, and uplifting song. I was honored to participate as the primary photographer, and had an incredible time working with these vibrant people. (click on any picture for a full slideshow)

Gift of Sport

For two weeks we were in the water every day except for the two days spent traveling from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. We would spend two hours snorkeling in the morning, break for lunch, and another two to three hours snorkeling in the afternoon, and oftentimes when we did get back to land I would spend another hour or so playing in the waves. So when we finished our fieldwork time and had a day to spend working on analyzing our data, I was initially really excited to relax. But by mid-afternoon, the hours behind a computer began to blur into a mass of floating black letters. Finally I gave up and walked outside, desperate to do something active–go hiking, go swimming, play volleyball. Oh how I wanted to play volleyball. To let go of circling statistics and roommate drama and focus entirely on encapsulated moments: serve, pass, set, spike.

The only things stopping me were that we were in a beach town in Panama, with no access to net or ball, and most of my classmates had taken a taxi to the other side of the island: so really everything. But the more I thought about how my chances of playing volleyball were pretty much zero, the more I was desperate to get on the court and out of my head. I had all of this pent-up energy humming on my skin like a build-up of static electricity, which was driving me to go anywhere just to get moving.

I went for a walk, and when I found a beach I pulled off my shoes and started running. For many people this might be a normal thing to do, but I’ve never been interested in running for exercise. This time, though, the impact of my feet on that hard-packed sand grounded me, pulling together all the loose energy and leaving it behind. I told myself I would run the length of the beach, and though I was gasping by the end of it, I kept going the whole way. And there, by some fantastic blessing, was a volleyball net set up in the sand, and even more importantly, when I arrived there was a full game in progress.

I stopped and stood there next to the court, entranced by the movement of the ball back and forth, the good-natured talk bantered around in a mixture of English and Spanish. It was so wonderful just to see people playing that I didn’t even realize I was staring until the game ended. All at once I felt shy, concerned that they already had an even number of players and probably wouldn’t want a random girl in jean shorts inserting herself into their group anyway. But even as I worried that asking to play with them would be rude, I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave without giving it my best shot.

Fortunately, one team was willing to let me join them. A couple passes and a string of serves later, they seemed quite happy to have me there. And I was ecstatic. I had some good plays and some bad plays, and even took a hit to the face from a spike that squeezed over the too-low net, and I was blissfully happy. I had so much fun I kept playing until the sun had begun to set, at which point I realized I was late for dinner. With lots of protesting from tired muscles, I ran the whole way back, and got back sweaty and smiling swith just a few minutes to spare.

Friends

There’s this theory I learned about in Psychology 101, which probably has a name but I couldn’t tell you what it would be, that says in general cases, the more time you spend with a person, the more you’ll like them. It would be an understatement to say that I have spent a lot of time with my classmates in Panama. We take classes together, we work in the forest together, we eat together, we hang out together, we watch movies together, we explore the city together, we even brush our teeth together. We’ve had lots of time to talk and bond, and I have enjoyed getting to know some of these people so well.

To be completely honest, there have been lots of bad moments. Times when people are yelling at each other, or just too many people talking too loudly. Times where interactions are shaped by cattiness and selfishness and general unhappiness. Times when, no matter how lovely everyone else may be, I really just need a little bit of time on my own, but there’s really nowhere in our schoolhouse I can be alone. It’s been long enough that I’d begun to forget that group interactions didn’t have to be this way, that multiple days could pass peacefully and pleasantly without making me feel like I needed to scream into a pillow, or at least leave the room before I snapped at someone.

Thankfully, one of my closest friends has also been studying here in Panama, and we keep each other going. Almost daily I’m reminded of how much more there is to friendship and positive relationships than quantity of time spent with someone. It’s not about carrying a conversation to fill the silence, it’s about trusting enough to share personal thoughts, bouncing around jokes and joy, and sometimes reveling together in the quiet itself.

Over spring break, another wonderful friend joined us, and the three of us spent some wonderfully relaxing time together. It was exactly what I needed, and was a clear reminder that groups of people could, in fact, interact in a positive way, and make decisions so that everyone was content. We were a small group, yes, but it reminded me of various groups of my friends who have constantly done the exact same thing–made all sorts of decisions, about restaurant choices or rules for games–yet I never considered it any special success. I don’t think it occurred to me how much a group of people, planning on hanging out as friends, could conflict and argue and place their own wishes above anyone else’s, and how those types of interactions would turn so many little things, down to serving food for dinner, into unpleasant power struggles.

I don’t know if it’s amazing how much conflict there is in this group, or if I should instead be amazed at how little conflict there has been in many of my other groups of friends. I do know that I miss my friends from school and home very much. Spring break was fantastic reminder of how happy I can be when I’m truly comfortable with other people, and it made me realize that I have not ever been fully relaxed around this group. As amazing as my time in Panama has been, with every day full of new discoveries and adventures, I am very ready to return to my “norm” of overwhelmingly pleasant time with the people I choose to be around. And I would like to sincerely thank my friends, from all times in my life, for being so wonderful that I know just how positive spending time with people can be.