This time of year is always a mood for me, as the younger folk say. Or maybe it’s a vibe? I’m not sure I know the difference. I just know that when the days start to lengthen, and you hear birds chirping in the mornings and evenings, and the air is still cool but holds the promise of future warmth, it brings back memories and puts me in a mood.
Studying in Germany for a year (well, two years) in college turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made, but it was not easy. The summer before I moved to Freiburg, I wouldn’t allow anyone to so much as say the word “Germany” because I was so terrified of the whole prospect of going there on my own that the very name of the country made my heart pound (I realize now that this was classic avoidance behavior in response to pathological anxiety, but at the time it was brushed off as “jitters”). The fact that I had already lived in Germany for much of my childhood did nothing to allay my fears. I had lived there as a kid among other Americans, but this time I would be fending for myself as a semi-adult among Germans.
For the first several weeks, I actually wasn’t among Germans for the most part; the study abroad program had a month-long orientation period which involved German classes and other introductory activities for us new American arrivals. The program was run by the University of Massachusetts, and I was one of just two students who weren’t actually from UMass. The other was a guy from Wisconsin (if I remember correctly) who was completing the orientation in Freiburg but then going on to study at a different German university. As the odd ones out, we became pals, and I have fond memories of evenings spent in the Hemingway Bar (which still exists!), drinking margaritas we couldn’t really afford and talking about the weirdness of suddenly being on your own in a foreign country.
My living situation made me an odd one out as well. Most of the other students had been placed in big German residential halls, but I was housed in a tiny student apartment that I shared with just one other person. I may have actually requested this (I honestly don’t remember anymore), and it did rather suit my quiet temperament—but it also meant that I didn’t have regular contact with a lot of other people. My flatmate was a mellow German law student in his final year at the university, and he very much had his own thing going on, his own life and his own friends. He turned out to be a sweet, funny guy and we eventually wound up becoming really friendly, but for the first months I lived there, we just politely and awkwardly danced around each other in our minuscule apartment, only really seeing each other when we were in the kitchen at the same time.
I did make one proper friend during the orientation month, someone I’m friends with to this day. We both wound up spending a second year in Freiburg, and when we finally went back to Massachusetts to graduate, she was my lifeline, the one person who understood the formative experiences I’d had in Freiburg because she’d had them too. I felt just as lost being back in Massachusetts after two years in Germany as I had felt when I first went to Germany from Massachusetts. Everything was turned around, I was out of sync, my friends had graduated without me, Jeremy was on a different continent, and nothing felt right. All I wanted was to get back to Germany.
But during much of that first year in Freiburg, I couldn’t have imagined that I’d ever feel that way. There were certainly lots of good times that year, and some wild times (I was 20, after all), and some sparkling moments when I didn’t feel like a foreign fish out of water but like someone who actually belonged where she was. There was ~drama~ too, of course, because everything is ~drama~ when you’re 20, everything matters, everything is just A LOT in a way that seems nostalgically appealing from the vantage point of middle age, though to live through it now would be exhausting and, frankly, annoying.
There was also a whole lot of lonely, and for various reasons, that loneliness reached a peak (or a trough?) around this time of year. I hadn’t really settled, I guess, even after months in Freiburg. My flatmate was friendly, but we weren’t friends. My few actual friends were all North Americans, and we were all trying to find our footing, and we knew that constantly hanging out with other English speakers kind of defeated the point of spending a year in Germany. We were all studying, and getting to grips with the language and the culture, and missing home, and muddling through. And it was at this time of year that I realized I had to come to terms with the loneliness, and with myself. The days were long, and I had to get through them, and the only person who was going to get me through them was me.
So I bought a bike. It was a big, pink(!) second-hand bike from a nearby shop, and I tootled around the leafy streets on it, enjoying the feeling of vehicular liberation (it was stolen the following year, because of course it was—everyone’s bike eventually got stolen). I started visiting a café deep in the Wiehre and sitting by myself, drinking milky coffee, writing moodily in my journal (yeah, I know), smoking my Gauloises Bleues (I KNOW—it was short-lived), forcing myself to just be. (Side note: I tried to get a job in that café a year later, but they didn’t want me—and it’s probably just as well, because I think I would have lasted all of 10 minutes before throwing coffee over a rude customer and quitting.) If my flatmate was away over the weekend, I would hang out in his room and watch his tiny TV (which probably got about three channels, all of which were terrible), or I’d raid his collection of John Irving books in German. I’d go to sleep to the sounds of Radio Regenbogen, an extremely anodyne station that filled up the dark nights with boring music and a jingle that sticks in my head to this day.
I started trying to properly cook for myself. Until then I had mostly subsisted on packaged pasta sauces and a “potatoes and tomatoes” concoction that sounds really gross (it was essentially mashed potatoes, canned tomatoes, and dried basil), but that I genuinely enjoyed. I ate that a lot—so much, in fact, that I distinctly remember my flatmate saying to me at some point “Du liebst das!” (“You love that!”) in a tone that was a mixture of affection and total perplexity. I did indeed love that, but those spring evenings were long, and I wanted to fill them up with something other than potatoes and tomatoes. So I called my Mom and Oma and asked for their recipes: homemade spaghetti sauce, ham pilau, red beans and rice. I made food from home, and I started getting adventurous and making my own food, too, like a tuna and rice thing with tomatoes, green olives and feta cheese if I was feeling fancy. Preparing food started to become an event, as did consuming it. It still is.
That first apartment was nothing more than a tiny shared kitchen, a tiny shared bathroom, and then my room and my flatmate’s room, each of which were only big enough for a single bed, some bookshelves, and a desk and chair. But we were lucky enough to have a very small balcony, too, with a bistro table and two chairs. Our flat was on the ground floor, so you could actually climb over the railing onto the balcony from the lawn in front of the building (this was also the entry point for two mice that got into our apartment over the course of the year). But that little bit of “private” outdoor space was precious. I don’t remember my flatmate sitting out there very often, but after the cold winter, as spring slowly rolled in, I took to sitting out there quite a bit.
I would sit at the table in the early evening, when the sun had dipped behind the buildings but there was still light in the sky. It would be chilly—too chilly, really, to sit out for very long, but just mild enough that you could get by with a big sweater pulled down over your hands and a scarf wrapped around your neck. I would sit there at the little table with a book, or maybe my journal, and with my pretentious cigarettes, and the cool evening air would be filled with chattering birds—almost incongruously, like one minute it had been winter, and now suddenly it was spring, and there were leaves on the trees, and all these birds had come out of nowhere to sing through the dusk. I remember my fingers being cold, and wondering how long I could hold out before retreating to warmth of my room and closing the door on the day.
It was lonely, sitting at that table by myself, but it was also…tranquil? It was a loneliness I embraced—and undoubtedly somewhat romanticized, as one is wont to do when one is the type to have gloomy Kafka quotes and the final stanza of Dover Beach tacked to the walls of her room. But by embracing the loneliness, I made it mine. It was a choice I was making for myself. I chose to sit out there in the evenings, and I chose when to go inside, and maybe ideally I would have chosen to be sitting there with someone else—but sometimes you have to just sit with yourself. The stillness of those early spring evenings imprinted itself on me, and it has imprinted itself on every early spring evening since then. I welcome these evenings and enjoy them, but always with a certain pensiveness, with the memory of being young and on the brink of many exciting, life-changing days just ahead, but also of being alone and very far away from anything I could call home.