My Dante Year

Dante was 35 when he got lost in the woods. He said he was “midway on the journey of our life” and then suddenly realized that he wasn’t sure about anything. He thinks “the straightforward path had been lost.” Think about that. You go through childhood, school, early career–life generally feels like it’s on a certain trajectory. Every act, milestone and decision contributes to and reaffirms that trajectory. It is as if you’re traveling along a rainbow. Certain moments can turn green, red or violet, but at the end of the day, there’s still a pot of gold waiting. Reaching that gold just requires a solid mix of patience and hard work. But at some point, one wonders if the rainbow actually exists, let alone the pot of gold. Maybe there are different roads, alternative paths to reaching that pot. Dante’s “come to” moment in the forest pinpoints that exact moment when the words “what the” shoot through your brain and leave you wondering, “what next and where to?” My Dante’s forest happened this summer.  I woke up with a piercing pain in my lower back. It was as if someone had shot a nail through the upper part of my hip bone. All of a sudden I couldn’t bend over. Buckling my shoes was impossible. Driving a car was hell, and getting in and out was worse. Worst of all, I couldn’t lay my daughter in her bed without my lower body screaming. I went to doctors and chiropractors. I took pain meds. And at the end of it all, I wondered, “is this the way it’s gonna be?” What next and where...

The Super Bowl: Watching from Abroad

If you haven’t heard it already, it will be said over and over again in the lead up to the evening of February 2nd: the Super Bowl is one of the most-watched annual sporting events in the world. Exactly to what degree the “world”, as in every country not named the United States of America, actually watches the event is a matter of some debate. Some news outlets claim that the event is watched by more than one billion people. Others calculate it closer to 100 million. Since I’ve never been that good at math, I say “tomato-tomatoe.” But even if only a fraction of the potential worldwide audience does tune in, that still leaves plenty of people out there willing to stare insomnia in the face. So here’s to all sports-crazed American expats and non-American devotees of the NFL. You’ll need some extra coffee and some tape for your eyelids to make it through February 3rd unscathed. For all those who don’t understand why the Super Bowl is such a big deal, here’s a short primer about the event and what it all means for expats living abroad. What’s in a name? The name “Super Bowl” actually started as a nickname to refer to the AFL-NFL World Championship game. It’s no secret that American sports teams like to claim global domination for winning a league championship. A league winner will often be called “world champion”, like the Miami Heat for the past two years. Even teams from the same city can battle for a world championship, like when the New York Yankees played the New York Mets for the...

American Sports on European Central Time

For American expats living in Europe, the two greatest sporting weekends of the year are: 1) the divisional NFL playoffs and 2) the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament. Yes, every four years the World Cup overrides everything, but that is a different sporting animal altogether. For the purpose of this blog, let’s stick to sporting events that take place on American soil and involve American sports teams. So back to the NFL divisional playoffs and the NCAA basketball tournament’s rounds of 64 and 32. What do they have in common? These weekends feature good teams competing in high stakes games that begin at or around 1:00 pm Eastern Time. In other words, these are the only meaningful games that can be watched in their entirety from a sofa in Europe. [**The Super Bowl is the big exception. Check back next week for an expat Super Bowl feature**] There is one important qualification to the statement above: unless you are an insomniac or do not wish to maintain a regular sleep cycle. Over the past three years, I have run into plenty of these types of European-based fanatics of American sports. There was the German taxi driver who watched every major league baseball game he could find or the chef who’s every Monday morning was devoted to the San Francisco 49ers. I once met a Penn State Nittany Lion fan, but I think that had more to do with her friends’ loyalties rather than her own. Dirk Nowitzi gets plenty of press here in Germany but almost no live coverage. If you want to watch live American sports...

Tips on Being the Native English Speaker

I’m not sure there’s much to debate about English’s place as the current means of international communication, particularly when it comes to global business and intercultural exchange. Recent studies confirm this trend (here and here), particularly in Europe. There’s even an abbreviation, ELF (stands for English as lingua franca, a term that it is itself oxymoronic), for conversations that occur among speakers of different first languages. Personal accounts also seem to bear this out. From my experience in Germany, any meeting or discussion that involves at least one non-German speaker is conducted in English. This is a massive credit to Germans as businesspeople and citizens of the world. Nevertheless, this is a great sense of satisfaction from being able to participate in a discussion in a foreign language. In fact, it is one of life’s great delights to witness the collective relief of a group once everyone realizes that the meeting can be conducted in their native, non-Anglophone language. Americans rarely experience this, so it’s worth stating: Being able to express yourself in your native language, especially when the stakes are high, is one of the most freeing feelings ever. If you’re into blogs, here’s my favorite from Ta-Nehisi Coates. So let’s say you’re a native speaker of English, and you suddenly find yourself in a non-English environment. Here are a few tips about how to conduct yourself and also address some inevitable questions. 1) Embrace your role as the English expert If you do happen to be the native speaker among non-natives, embrace it. Accept every request to review a document, review an email and (if able) translate a text....

Living in a Denglish World

Denglish is combination of “Deutsch-English” and describes hybrid words and phrases borrowed between the two languages. There was a recent article in a local German newspaper about someone who sued the German Federal Employment Agency because one of its offices was called “Jobcenter.” The lawsuit contended that because the official language of German federal agencies is “German” (or Hochdeutsch / High German to be more specific), the Jobcenter did not fulfill its federal mandate. Or something like that. Another article notes the rising number of pseudo-anglicisms in German, such as Fitnessstudio for the gym or Beamer for projector. My favorite is Smoking for tuxedo. The most widely known, and the first one that any German language learner remembers, is Handy for mobile phone. Mobile phones are indeed handy but then again so is a hammer.   For the purists and the critics, the rise of Denglish threatens the very foundation of German language, grammar and culture. And if you have ever heard someone say that a project needs to be gestartet, gemanaged or gechallenged, such concerns may in fact be justified. Yet for this native speaker of English, the rise of Denglish is also flattering and weirdly life-affirming. My language, the one I learned as a kid, serves as the main source of inspiration and creativity for other non-English languages. The words I know and speak are seen as cool, useful and worth repeating. But as someone who also tries to keep two separate languages going in my head, trying to speak in the German-English hybrid often leaves me confused and speechless. Try ordering a drink at a German Starbucks, especially...

Reflections on Thanksgiving Abroad

It’s difficult not to write an elegy for Thanksgiving. Living abroad is a blessing in that you can discover and enjoy new festivals and traditions. Here in Germany, all of the carnival (Fastnacht / Fasnet) come to mind. But that blessing is also a curse. Participating in other people’s holidays means that inevitably you will miss out on your own. It reminds me of a little joke: How come there isn’t a 4th of July in France? Well, there is. It just isn’t special. The 4th of July in France doesn’t come packaged with parades, songs and general holiday spirit. The same is true of Thanksgiving. Even with its murky origins and the ongoing debate about “Black Friday” creeping into Thursday, it’s hard to imagine Thanksgiving without family, food and, well, more family and food. Yet it is exactly these two things, namely family and food, that make the expat experience different in so many ways. Even with all the modern communication technologies (especially Skype, how did expats ever survive without it?), relatives just feel farther away. I don’t know what separates expats from their relatives. Maybe it’s the time zones, the language, cultural calendar, infrastructure or housing. It takes hard work, planning and persistence to make sure that distance does not turn into separation. I do, however, know what separates expats from “their food,” supermarket shelves! No cheddar cheese here, no brown sugar there, which store was it again that carried pumpkin paste? It just takes one out of stock ingredient to nix a whole swath of favorite holiday recipes. And in this sense, it’s hard not to...

The Joy of Random Sports Abroad

I made the switch from cartoons to sports fairly early in life. For the Americans out there, that meant moving from Nickelodeon to ESPN. My weekend mornings consisted of SportsCenter repeats instead of X-Men and Looney Toons. I saw drama and artistry in sports, culture clashes intertwined with high stakes and, above all, the tension of an unknown outcome. It’s finally time to admit a few things: I cried at the end of Cool Runnings. Thanks to A League of Their Own, I may have left the theater with a lump in my throat (but you can’t prove that, it was 4th grade). I was there clapping and cheering with the rest of the theater audience when John Moxon and the rest of the West Canaan Coyotes claimed their 23rd district championship (“good gosh almighty Joe Friday!”). Sports can be intensely boring. Just as the soccer haters of America who always bring up the dreaded 0:0 tie as the reason why association football will never take off in the United States. That’s why I think I like the underdogs, the ones that don’t win every game, every year. As a general rule, underdogs offer up plenty of uninspiring and boring performances. Then again, those are the kind of performances that pave the way for genuine moments of sporting surprise and joy. In this, I agree with Nick Hornby, who argued in Fever Pitch that for an onlooker to experience a truly memorable game, his/her team must suffer adversity, and preferably of multiple kinds. Adversity provides a solid emotional link to any sports memory. Our first child was born 12...

Tips on Dealing with Problems Abroad

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my 5+ years living abroad, it is that problems encountered away from home somehow feel doubly difficult to manage. Maybe it’s the language barrier, or some unknown local laws, or maybe someone just having a crappy day that turns what seemed like a simple 10-minute task into your own personal version of the Amazing Race spiced with a couple Survivor-style puzzles. In the place where you grew up, somehow you just know how to handle most problems. You know where the appropriate offices are located, whom to call, which stores offer the right services, you have money in the correct currency and, if you’re lucky, a relative or two around who can help. But when you’re abroad, problems have the potential to escalate into a different dimension. The worst of the worst occur when something exists (or is supposed to exist) in the abroad culture that doesn’t exist at home. Could you produce an official and notarized document that confirms you have, up until now, been single your entire life? If your university has no central office that maintains transcripts and credit hours completed, how would you show that you successfully completed all of your coursework? Would you comply with a local law requiring your hotel to hold onto your passport overnight? Could you prove that the official who signed your marriage license actually had the authority to do so? All of these situations have either happened to me or someone I know. Conquering them requires patience, emotional stability, imagination and a little bit of luck. Even if you happen to have...

The American Dream and the Dream of Europe

Maybe they’re visions instead. After my previous post, my father-in-law rightly noted that as an expat, my wife and I are less like changelings and more like dreamers. That got me wondering exactly where and how our dreams have guided us over the past ten years. Over that time, we have been lucky enough to experience both the American and European versions. Time plays a crucial role in the experience of dreams. There has to be enough of it to wade through the slings, arrows, pastries, documents, drinks and festivals in order to make a valid assessment. Anything shorter than three months in America or Europe is more like a nap. The ‘real’ American Dream and the Dream of Europe are supposed to offer a glimpse into what the future in each place ought to look like. They are more roadmap than trippy B-film, directing their believers toward some previously known and agreed upon goal. As you can see from the auto-search results in the picture above, more people tend to point out that their roadmap is deficient. Maybe the GPS gave a wrong turn or two. Maybe the system is missing whole highways. There may not have even been a road back there. This is why these are more like visions. Whether you’re living in What Cheer, Iowa or Bad Kissing, Bavaria, we can’t really wake up. The American Dream remains a hard and fast adage of American citizens, politicians, commentators. If I remember right—and I may not—the typical American Dream includes a house, yard, car or two (or five), satisfying work, a solid family and minimal interference from outsiders. It serves as a...

Expat bread crumbs

Expat. It stands for someone who was one thing and has become something else. An ex-patriot, one who no longer lives inside the borders of the patria, the homeland. It’s been 2.5 years since my family and I packed up in Indiana and moved to Germany. In that span of time, somewhere and somehow we seemed to have crossed an invisible personal border: a transition from Americans just living abroad to expats. We still live in the same place, the same apartment. Physically we’re no farther away from America than we ever were. But I have the growing sense that as the days and months tick by over here, the cultural ties to America become weaker in strength and smaller in number. College football seems farthest in the rearview mirror, followed by sweet corn, highway driving and supermarkets. It’s like Hansel and Gretel can’t find all of their bread crumbs anymore. Well, the bread is indeed different over here. As the ties to one culture fall away, what remains in its place? I’ve often thought that the departure’s tone (sad, determined, heroic, egoistic) determines what happens after that first step. Is the traveler heading toward something better? A new job, a romance perhaps, that pushes him onward, full of hope and energy. Or maybe some less affirmative reason drives him, like war or personal endangerment. These steps are hurried, full of loose ends and loss. The point is, it is hard for expats to determine their trajectory in relationship to home (or wherever home used to be). Maybe it’s all as it was in those first days, everything still heading away from home toward something greater, more adventurous and fulfilling. Or maybe the true adventure is over and the journey homeward has...