Friday, November 17, 2017

My life in bubbles.

Almost 9 months ago now, things in my life started changing. My future started to unfold, in a way. There has been a lot going since then and I would like to share it with you. So here, dear friend, family member, or random acquaintance, is my account of the events that have led up to me being where I am. It is all very important to me, but I am not striving to be concise. In the style of my cousin and favorite Alaskan explorer, I will be sure to add a summary at the end of this - for those of you too uninterested to read the details, you can skip to the bottom. Go on, start scrolling now.

Hello, dear reader.

Whether you are someone who knows what I ate for lunch yesterday (pasta with a. Gorgonzola sauce) or someone who hasn't heard from me in ages, I'd like to take you back to the beginning of the story. In a way. Lately, I have noticed that my life has sections that revolve around an activity (work, school, etc.), and that people in one section are not always aware of the others - I call these the bubbles of my life.

Three years and two months ago I moved to Leipzig, Germany, and enrolled at the Leipzig University of Applied Sciences. There, I live in an apartment about 7 minutes from school (via public transport) with two other young people. Each of us had our own, very different lives, but our apartment was a place where we shared cookies and stories and postcards. This apartment was the basis for the first bubble: 

My undergraduate program has been very difficult for me. The classes are in both English and German and cover a vast spectrum of fields: Math, statistics, marketing, strategic management, human resource managment, accounting, taxation law, german private and business law, international economic law, languages, economics, computer sciences, communications... and when it is over I should come out with a B.A. in International Management. As interesting as all of these different subjects can be, it really isn't what I want to do with my life. A combination of factors started to really get me down. I ceased to enjoy class and lost the motivation to wade my way through material that didn't interest me. School has now become a place that I visit a few times a year to sit down and take a few exams - nothing more. As my want to graduate slowly dwindles, I struggle more and more to get through. But I will finish. With 5 classes and a bachelor's thesis to go, I will get there. Even if school is no more means to an end for me.

The exchange program that carried me to Germany for the first time (not including vacations as a little human) has become an integral part of my - even daily - life, and thus, the second bubble. When I first moved to Leipzig and was looking for friends, I decided to give AFS a try. After all, we would all have something in common. I have now been volunteering for AFS Germany in numerous capacities (which mostly involves a lot of emailing, talking on the phone, and event planning) and the experience has opened all kinds of doors for me. Presenting new ideas to a group of 200+ volunteers? No problem. Moderating discussions about the future of our organization? Sure! Handling the finances for a 40-person event including reimbursements? Gladly. And the best part is that I will always be able to bring my own skills and qualifies to the table. I get to work on the projects that interest me, take on responsibilities that I feel suited for and get inspired by hundreds of volunteers who come together from the most diverse backgrounds for a common purpose. As far as I can tell, AFS will always be a part of my life.

The Ship.
When it comes to bubbles, nothing quite compares to sailing. Through AFS, I first found myself aboard the Fridtjof Nansen in the spring of 2014. I had been there two years prior, as an exchange student, but this time I understood so much more. Before long, I didn't want to leave. And so, I began volunteering, learning, and loving the work on board. The ship is run by a volunteer organization. Volunteers come on board, clean, repair, cook and in trade, are able to sail around the Baltic Sea and learn from each other. Since I started, I have learned soooo much. We take care of  the woodwork and metal decks. We repair rusty stairs and squeaky joints. We learn to patch the sails, replace the ratlines and run the machines. Although it is coming nearly impossible to find time in my busy schedule to head up to the coast, I go sailing when I can and learn something new each time. There is something wonderful about the fresh are, the intense work for both my body and my mind and the experience of true teamwork.

As I mentioned earlier, my life has changed rather a lot. In February of this year I packed up that wonderful little apartment in Leipzig and moved into my new, on place in Berlin. I have never been a big city kid (let's be honest, Anchorage is barely a city) and would have never chosen Berlin on my own. But as fate has it, my next stepping stone was there. In the early months as school began to suck, I realized I would rather be studying economics. Instead of switching majors (not as easy as it sounds) I decided to set my sights on a graduate program in economics. So what are the admission requirements? Math classes, Econ classes, I can swing that. Experience in economic research? Shit.
On a whim, I asked my Econ professor for guidance - and boy was that a good idea. Two years later I finally took the step and applied for an internship at a research institute in Berlin. Success! A move! A successful internship! A job offer! A visa hassel! A valid work visa!

Thus, a new bubble was created. I have my own desk and a 40-hour work week and weekly team meetings and project numbers and papers and forms. It's all very exciting! We work on various research projects from analyzing funded housing to population development to rates of construction and so much more. I have fallen in love with organizing complicated spreadsheets and exploring statistics databases. I really hope that this bubble can stay a part of my life for quite a while. Despite the struggles on the side (gosh, 40 hours of work and 10 hours of sleep a night doesn't leave much space for fun) and school inching forward so slowly, I have found a new environment where I finally feel like I can thrive.

In summary, I moved to a huge city where I don't feel at home. But because so many parts of my life bring so much joy (volunteering with AFS, sailing when I can and a new job in the big city), I have been able to find solid ground and build a life for myself. I don't really save money yet, I have trouble getting the dishes done and I have to regularly renew my visa. But AFS gives me friends, work gives me intellectual stimulation and sailing gives me adventures. I'm not staying here forever, nor can I say what my next step will be, but the prospect of asking my boss to extend my contract excites me instead of scaring me. And I want to hold on to this feeling and continue to explore these new doors that are open to me.

With love,

Friday, October 27, 2017

n. A superficial appearance or illusion of something.


Is my believable German accent a façade that hides my struggles with the language?

Is my extroversion a façade to protect the introvert in me?

Are that smile and nod a façade to hide my utter boredom?

Is that "Great! And how are you?" a façade to hide how I'm really feeling?

There are some words that seem to jump out at me as I learn them. They grab onto the outside of my brain and slowly work their way into that one part of my mental hard drive that cannot be erased. All of them carry the memory of how we met (equilibrium: first seen on a grade school spelling test) and have grown to share a much deeper meaning in application to my life (equilibrium: a sign from above as I heard this, my favorite word, on the first day of every new school I attended). It's like having a song stuck in your head, an "earworm" as Germans call it, but I get words stuck in my head. Today, that word is façade.

I seem to remember façade being on the same spelling test as equilibrium (it wasn't, but I honestly only remember one spelling test in school). At the time, it was one of those faaancy words that made you sound like you were practicing for a spelling test and not like it was a usual part of your vocabulary. However, façade was one of those words that I picked up very quickly in German:

façade (English) <=> Fassade (German)

Something about growing up and learning how to adult has brought a lot of self-reflection (idk, maybe it's the whole living in a foreign country and keeping a journal thing). One of the realizations I recently had is that my true personality and the façade I prefer to hide behind have become so intertwined that I fear they are no longer separable. Do you know that feeling when you have a secret, say you know what someone is getting for Christmas from their partner, and spill the beans? That split second where your mouth is already open and the sentence has already been put together and you try to stop it from coming out but notice it just a second too late? That's kind of the feeling I get when people as how I am doing, what I am thinking about or if I want to hang out. Except in my case, it's the opposite. My façade has been in control of answering those questions for so long. I don't quite know how it started, something about puberty and stress, but it became routine, completely natural. 

"Great! And how are you?"

"Wait... stop!" my mind says. "You weren't supposed to let that one out. You were going to try and be honest this time." And there it is, that feeling like I have blurted out the last thing I really wanted to say. 

The façade once served a good purpose and sometimes, it is just not the time and place to be honest (those two awkward minutes with my boss in the elevator this morning). But as the years have gone on, it has grown from a shield to hide behind into a controlling boyfriend I really need to get away from. I have finally started to realize that every time I let my façade do the talking, I am pushing the person across from me another step back. 

On a very bad night, a few weeks ago, I had a horrifying realization. I was curled up on the floor, gasping for air between sobs. And as I went through the list of people I could message, call, go visit, I came up short. That night, I realized that every person I let my façade talk to is one less person I feel comfortable sharing the truth with. So here it is, my promise to myself to always stop and carefully decide before I let my façade do the talking.

P.S. This phase of my life that is full of significant self-reflection? it also brings emotional blog posts with it. So do what I am going to go do and watch this:

Respectfully accrediting the definition to its rightful source:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Not my president - but still my country.

If you have ever wondered why anyone would choose to live in a country with Trump as president, you have likely never experienced the reality of homesickness. And I'm not just talking about missing mom's cookies - I mean the all-consuming, debilitating yearning for a place where you feel safe, comfortable, and happy. Let me tell you what it feels like for me.

It has been 3 years, 11 months and 20 days since I moved to Germany. I speak German rather well, would consider myself fairly assimilated, and have the privilege of not being visibly foreign. So why does this country not feel like home?

What is home? If home is where my hat is, home could be the Frankfurt airport where I left my favorite hat over five years ago. If home is where my heart is, home could be my favorite bed on my favorite ship on the Baltic Sea. If home is where my friends are, home could be in Iceland, where a meeting of European AFS volunteers is about to take place. If home is where my family is, home could be in Thailand, where my sister lives. But I believe in something more abstract: "Home" is a feeling, not a place. (See more musings on this topic: Home, Sweet Home.) And right now, my home feels like Alaska.

There were times where Germany was my home. My family in Hoyerswerda, my favorite flatmate in Leipzig, the exchange students in Saxony... They (and others) made me feel at home. But, over the years, there as been a little rock in my shoe, reminding me that I am different. A feeling that I do not belong. And, as long as I feel like a foreigner, I will not want to stay.*

Being a foreigner. One can always argue that being different is choice - something you can choose to not identify with. But how can I move past being "different" when I have to explain the story of why I moved to Germany on a weekly basis?** How can I move past being "different" when my desk at work has a pile of dictionaries and grammar books, without which I could not write a professional email? How can I move past being "different" when every time I see salmon on the menu, I wonder what species it is? The ability to move past these differences and accept who you are, can, in my opinion, only be done when you feel accepted. As long as you are judged for your differences, (even if it isn't meant negatively!) you cannot begin to ignore them.

So here's the real kicker. When my life in Germany was just starting, people remarked at my 'bravery' and 'strength' for being so far away from home for so long. They expected me to move home. Yet, as I have begun to tell people that I plan to move home, I find myself stuttering to find a response to the big question: Why would you move back to that country, where Trump is the reigning president?? (Let me add that I have yet to meet a European Trump supporter here. So you can safely assume that the people posing this question are somewhere on the scale between annoyed indifference and making jokes about plotting an assasination.) Feel free to insert a bewildered face and distant jokes about the administration here - all while the speaker never considers what it means to not have a European passport.

Is my sense of home affected by who my president is? Is yours? How about who your local representative is? Or the principal of your school? Or your neighbor's dog? Sure, these people can have an impact on your life (and yes, Trump's policies are impacting my life for the worse) but isn't home the place you would fight to protect and only abandon if there were no other options?

The anniversary of my move is coming up and, like every year, it is bringing a wave of homesickness with it. Why did I move? Was it the right decision? Where would I rather live? Life is full of existential questions - most of which bring me more stress than inspiration. My yearning to return to the country where my passport is identification enough comes from a place of frustration, love and, most importantly, an understanding of my personal development over the last few years. I just feel like it is time to take the next step - and to start that next step from my home base.

Please, dear friends, remember that biased, generalizied views of a country can be far from the feelings of one's heart. I may not support the president of the country I call home. But that country will remain my home - at least for a little while longer. Despite the risks and the rights I am losing within this administration, I am priviliged enough to have a safe home to go back to.

Only time will tell when and where to I will move, but I can feel it coming. Germany has hosted me for so long now, and I will never regret that decision. But there is still so much of the world to see. And there will always be politicians that remind us of why we fight.

* There are, of course, people who thrive on being different, on being a foreigner. I am not one of them. I prefer to assimilate, to understand the culture, and to integrate myself into it.
** Seriously. Weekly. There are weeks (like weeks spent on the boat or attending AFS events) where I answer hundreds of questions about my origins, language skills, country choice..... And I swear, I am not exaggerating.
P.S. I'll be in Germany a little while longer, but the next step is somewhere else. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

I named my back pain Herbert.

As an athlete (and perhaps also as an Alaskan?), pain has always been a part of my life. Usually, pain was a sign of a great workout or of a muscle that needed attention. Every once in a while, the pain was a sign that I needed to focus on taking care of my body again and help something heal. The advantage to knowing pain is being able to determine something basic: is this a good pain? Do I need to worry?

So when pain took root in my lower back, I started off easy: Ibuprofen to lessen it and to reduce inflammation; heat packs to loosen tight muscles; focused yoga to try and work out the kinks my body apparently had. The pain would ebb and then return and I grew to believe that I had injured something during my move to a new city. We did haul quite a lot of heavy shit up and down stairs... (and I have never been one to let the others do the heavy lifting when I can show off a little.)

My frustration seemed to grow in connection to my pain - definitely a correlation. So, in an attempt to work on the psychological side of my pain as well as the physical side, I have named my back pain Herbert. He is a small littler bugger who likes to poke me and has tentacles that spread from my lower back all the way down to my right knee. So, this blog post is about the story of Herbert, the little dude stopping me from enjoying my life.

Herbert persisted. He had started to build his own little home and refused to move out. Within a few weeks of the initial pain, I was having trouble putting my shoes on and couldn't sit still. So, like any well-insured German, I went to the doctor. Unfortunately, this doctor didn't come with a TARDIS and helpful sonic. Instead, she did the least helpful thing imaginable: she prescribed Ibuprofen. As if my Costco supply could EVER run out. 

Over the few weeks after that, my Ibuprofen intake increased and I started leaning on the advice of friends:
"How regularly are you taking Ibuprofen? You should definitely take something to protect your stomach lining." "Have you tried a foam roller?" "How about a pain-relieving cream?" "It will probably go away if you just work out more." "You need to go see an orthopedics doctor because they will know more about how to help." I feel like I've heard it and done it all at this point. Believe me, I'm trying!

Because Herbert seemed so insistent on attention, I gave it to him. We picked out an orthopedics doc (who prescribed Ibuprofen, argh!) and, with some cajoling, got a prescription for physical therapy. The physical therapist was nice and the kind who actually gets to know you. He is from Poland and we talk about the German language and how he wants to start his own practice. We bitch about well-regulated healthcare - believe me, it has its downsides, too. But... another month past and things were just not improving. At this point, I was seeing the orthopedics doc every 3 weeks, the physical therapist twice a week, and had racked up at least a week of sick days due to my back. 

Herbert and I decided to take matters into my own hands (financially) and visit someone my insurance wouldn't cover. She is a massage therapist from the US and has taught me more about muscles than I ever learned in high school. In our first session, I told stories of old high school swimming injuries (and that bike crash senior year) and we compared favorite yoga poses. It helped and I could actually touch my toes after our session. But the relief was short-lived.

So now here I am. I have turned my kitchen table into a standing desk; I might move my pillows and sheets to the floor any day now, and my yoga mat has taken up permanent residence on the floor. The list of things I am trying keeps growing and the biggest problem seems to be that no one knows what is really going on. The other physical therapist I saw even claimed that Herbert didn't live in my back but that he had actually found his home in my neck and jaw (despite there being no pain there).

Now what on earth is the point of this blog post? If you have read this far, you have got to be more interested in my life than the average stalker of mine - my ramblings aren't interesting to everyone. But, wuite often, I come to you wonderful readers with some epiphany of my life. So let's have one:
Pain is a sign of life. It is a light in the darkness, a reminder that you can feel. It may be frustrating, incapacitating, annoying. But remember: anyone can feel pain, but not everyone must suffer. Life isn't always going to be easy and you can't expect things to roll smoothly once you've conquered your existing struggles (moving to Berlin, starting a new job...). Something is always going to pop up and knock you on your ass again. So it's your choice. Are you going to stay down there, on your ass, or are you going to get up and do something about it? God knows the pain won't go away if you don't address it. So dammit, Herbert, find someone else to bother!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A year of learning.

It’s been quite a while since we’ve talked, dear friends. I suppose there are always reasons and excuses for my blog silence. But in the end, I have to make sure you all know that I strive to not stress myself out because of a need to conform to expectations of my audience. I am so grateful to know that you are out there, reading this, whoever you may be. But my blog is a safe space for me to express the things that I suppose could also land in a diary – but in a much more structured and articulate way.

What has been going on in my life lately? Well. What a question. The last year has been one of the most developmental parts of my (semi-) adult life. I have learned, grown, changed and finally feel like I have found a place where I am happy. (I’m not talking about a physical place, more of a temporal one.) Before we get into the long story of my journey to this place, let me catch you up on where I currently am and what has inspired me to write this post.

Currently, I’m in a train (omg what a surprise) returning home from a long, successful AFS weekend. It was the Constanze – the national training event for volunteers. For me, however, it was the third of three seminars in the AFS Leadership Fellows course that I participated in. We had spent the past year learning about the possibilities within leadership as well as the ways that we as individuals prefer to lead. It was a group of incredibly inspirational people from whom there was so much to learn! The weekend was full of intense yet educational discussion and friendly snuggles – of course.

It is after weekends like this that I sit and reflect on what I have learned, who I am and what I strive for. And a few of those things are exactly what I want to share with you now. I have had so many experiences to reflect on in the last year.

A new semester:
As usual, the winter semester was in full swing by the middle of October. I was feeling strong and motivated. I was inspired by my friends and enjoyed going to class. There was so much energy in me and so much excitement to be one step closer to my degree. But as the weeks drew on, the fog around me began to grow. I felt like things were going downhill but I couldn’t identify why. I don’t think it was ever caused by one individual factor. By the time the New Year rolled around, I was exhausted from school. I was frustrated, resentful and unhappy – all of which led to a pretty darn miserable time. I had much less time for the boat and was very focused on achieving my academic goals with flying colors – not realistic when combined with all the other influencing factors.
Every semester ends in a stressful and strained few weeks of exams. And this semester was no different. I did not achieve my goals and pass all the exams I wanted to. Instead, I felt like I was surviving and struggling to do the bare minimum.

Although February always tended to be my favorite month (good skiing snow, birthdays of so many friends, spring on the horizon), it was tainted by illness. One stomach bug after cold after period kept me tied to my bed. Even now, I can feel my body struggling because of this phase of pure weakness – by which I mean that I spent so much time recovering that my body grew weaker. The end of the month brought with it the biggest change in the last three years: I moved to Berlin.
There are cities around the world with these incredible reputations of culture and vibrancy. Which is good for those of us who thrive on the bustle of the city. But I do not. I still struggle with the sheer masses of population around me. Both the variety and the commonalities overwhelm me simply because there is no escape. The power of this city is always present. But I began my time in this new subletting the room of a roommate of a friend. I had never seen the place and didn’t know the rest of the people I was living with before the day I moved in. Tired, stressed and vulnerable I started a new life.

My safe space:
As time moved on, I began to carve out my hole in the city. My little world surrounded by the energy of so many dreamers. Mid March I moved into my very own apartment: one room, bath, balcony and built-in kitchen. It takes me 15 minutes to get to work and I feel safe at home. Both emotionally and physically. The first days in my own apartment were a relief but it wasn’t until this last week that I have really begun to thrive. My apartment gives me the space to be alone and be my best me. But my work is the space where my mind can thrive and work in collaboration. I have fallen in love with my job and although there is so much to learn, I finally feel at home. I am challenged and supported; I am learning and teaching; I am creating something exciting that I am not doing out of a sense of responsibility but out of a pure desire to do so.

And what have I learned? I have learned that I am myself and no one else. And the most important part of that is that I am the only one who has any say on if I ever change who I am. There will always be people around you who judge or critique you. But do you? There will be people who want you to change. But do you want to? You are the only one who can live your life and are the only one who needs to be happy with the way that you live it. We are not on this world to hurt others but also not necessarily to support others. I believe that by being our best selves we can come together to create the best world for each of us.

If there is one thing I hope I never forget, it is that I am so thankful for the experience I have with the billions of people with whom I share this earth. But in the end, my own mind is the one that I fall asleep next to. And we must get along.