Dec. 28. 2020

This is not a travelogue

It took a while to get into my walk. It felt strange walking without a stick today, like a man who’s lost his hammer or like I’m walking around as half of a horse costume. I brooded and muttered silently to myself about noise at the apartment (our landlords have been renovating the space above us for the last 8 weeks). But the chill in my legs and my careful steps on the wet, creaky snow braced me, reminded me a bit of childhood and the strange comfort of being not quite warm enough. I want to be just cold enough, my feet on the verge of being frankly wet, that I begin to watch the sky a little anxiously and want to turn back, point myself at the church steeple surrounded by houses. I’ll put up with the noise if it means I can warm my feet and have a hot cup of tea.

It’s time to wrap up my Year in Hessen.

There are things I wanted to write about before the year ended, a messy list: the life history of ‘Bads’ (spa towns), the wealth of Hessisch folklore repurposed, the great freedom and occasional nuisances of public transit, the German madness for everything modern—however ugly or cheap—or how about our repeated hard landings in the house search, and, last but not least, Hessen’s great gift to the world: the BioNTech vaccine. But these will all have to wait or just be forgotten. It’s time to look at the whole year and draw—what? not  conclusions so much as main threads, what is left when most of the detail falls through.

What has surprised us about this past year? What have we learned? Of course 2020 will always be the year of COVID. But, for us, it was also the year we started a new life in another country. We couldn’t have known when we got on the plane in late 2019 what was ahead of us, what was ahead for the whole world. We are all of us now calling anything that happened before 2020 the “Before Times”. When we watch a  TV show we know when something was filmed in the Before Times. People stand close together, they shake hands warmly. How would they know that something as simple as this would just disappear overnight? How would we know that a year after the news from Wuhan it’s Christmas again and  an orange stuck with cloves would look like a life-threatening virus? That this shape would become the emblem, the mascot of the nightly news, the daily papers, our whole lives.

I can’t help but think of the ‘war’ against the virus has now become less like a battle and more the kind of unending low-grade hell that two generations of Afghanis and Syrians have lived under. What do we say to the doctors, nurses, techs, everyone who works in a hospital? There is no apology big enough, deep enough. Our words to them would be meaningless. A whole generation of people in healthcare around the globe have been traumatized for life. We cannot possibly imagine what it was like, what it’s still like.

But just as you can hear bad news from someone right next to you—a neighbour’s or coworker’s parent is dying—and feel genuine sympathy and sadness, it isn’t long before your attention is absorbed by something else. You have your own life to live. And, to be honest, the first few months of the pandemic in Europe–March, April, May– are a time I’ll remember fondly. How can I say this?! It has nothing to do with the pandemic. It has everything to do with these walks in the countryside, this incredible sense of freedom, capaciousness. Something I haven’t experienced since my wanderings as a child in the Ravine near our house. I think it was even more quiet (but for birdsong) in those first few months than it is now, because there were no planes flying and few if any trucks on the highway some 10 km away. Another kind of Before Times, perhaps the way this landscape sounded and felt back in the 1950s. On my long walks I drank in this solitude and quiet that was reviving me, restoring me after so many years of stress and intrusion. In those first few months, every field and wood, every turn in the path, was new to me. And every bird. I remember when and where I saw each ‘lifer’ and happily added it to my list. The list for this year is now near 50 species. That is 2020 for me, as much as COVID or anything else.

After selling our modest little house in the States, we knew that we would relish having money for the first time in our lives. Not to spend it, just to look at it and be amazed, take a deep breath and feel the ease that comes with money. Because that is what money does. It buys you peace of mind, options, time, a sense of calm, a feeling of relaxation after so much striving and worrying. Money matters. We knew this, but we also knew that we couldn’t just sit still and admire it for too long, that it was already eroding the minute we got the big check. What we didn’t know is that a year later I still wouldn’t be making nearly enough to stop that monthly erosion. But something else we couldn’t have guessed is that the tidy lump in the bank is keeping us in good health, keeping us sane, while so many others have to deal with the twin stress of fearing they’ll get COVID and fearing they’ll lose their job. So many ‘middle class’ people were living month to month before the pandemic. Now what? I totally understand why everyone wants to drown themselves in Netflix and junk food.

We knew we wouldn’t be in any hurry to buy a house after the long and stressful War on Things we had waged in our previous house. We didn’t know that it wouldn’t be at all easy to rent an apartment for the long-term (no one seems to care that we have money in the bank, it’s all about income) and that we’d end up looking at fixer-uppers again. But, like a fairy ring of mushrooms, the houses we can afford have in the few years since we started looking online spread further and further from Kassel. Now it’s less about striving towards a goal and more about learning to want what we can actually have.

What else? Were we glued to the tube in 2020? (I’m talking politics and whatever is happening to the U.S. that the word ‘politics’ doesn’t quite capture.)  Yes, like everyone else. We found out that the golden days of the Internet are long over and that it is now showing its monstrous side. Mental illness can be amplified on a continental scale in a matter of no time. We must learn to tame this thing, or at least not be consumed by it.

The outdoors saves us. When we came here we thought we might enjoy going for walks. We didn’t know that we would live within an amazing landscape that is completely overlaid in footpaths, like a lung covered in uncounted, tiny, branching blood vessels, a beautiful, thriving thing.  (Just hit satellite view on googlemaps ‘Habichtswald’ and zoom in, if you don’t believe me). Such a place—or such an agreement—is life sustaining. The life of the soul, or just your beating heart if cardio is what you’re after. Here, walking in the open land is not some kind of ‘amenity’ or ‘extra’. It is a way of life and goes hand in hand with the idea of the commonweal. This tradition of shared space goes deep and shapes a person’s outlook in ways they may not be fully aware of.

I have no interest in comparing the two countries, the one I left and the one I settled in. I don’t think I ever had an interest in doing that. If there were Pros and Cons they were all in the careful planning stage and have stopped having any meaning. It might make for suitable Q&A small talk if anyone ever asks me but, frankly, such comparisons and rankings bore me. I’d rather know how someone spent their day, what they saw, what they ate, what they’re reading, wherever they happen to be.

Another thing. In the year that I’ve been writing about my new life in Germany I have gradually stopped being the tourist. Because there is no going back. This is my home. This is my default. It means that what once seemed exotic is commonplace.  What I wrote in the early months sounds like what the excited, bemused traveler is thinking. New things to see, talk about, unfold in front of you. But eventually you stop ‘othering’ the people around you, your neighbors, the shop clerks, the people on the bus, because, even with masks and  Abstand rules in a pandemic, people and the places in which they live get closer to you, stop being subjects  for the traveler to contemplate.

Because you stop being a traveler.

There is the continuing struggle to speak a new language. There is the mountain of Admin you have to deal with anywhere you live. Life gets ordinary. That’s not to say you stop being curious, perplexed, irritated, delighted or plain satisfied by what we see. It’s the same set of eyes that can look at anything. Why didn’t I write more about what I saw and experienced in North Carolina? In retrospective, that looks exotic now.

Find me please that quote, in whatever language, about traveling making you see your home so much more clearly when you return. So I can tell you that’s not what this is about. I haven’t traveled. I’ve resettled, for lack of a better word. The traveler, no matter how rugged, always treats the new land as a consumable because he always has a home, an eventual return at the back of his mind no matter what he’s doing in the moment. Of course I love to travel. Traveling does makes me curious and opens my eyes but so does staying home, here in North Hessen.

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