Thursday, April 17, 2008

Four Months Later

It has been four months to the day since we returned to Michigan. After a frenzied first week of errands and unpacking, we drove the minivan down to southern Illinois to spend a quiet Christmas with John’s parents. (We had to take the minivan because the Evo was stuck at the Mitsubishi dealership with a stripped screw on one front brake caliper, damaged by the service technician during a brake inspection!) We left Scotty at the kennel but took Cody with us because we didn’t want to lock him up in a concrete cell after the stress of his recent world travels. He weathered his first 9-hour car ride quite well, perfectly content to sleep on the floor of the back seat, resting his head on the console between our seats.

We spent a quiet New Year’s Eve at home, feasting on foie gras and caviar in front of the TV, and woke up to nearly a foot of fresh snow on the ground. John re-painted the office and baby room during his holiday, using environmentally-friendly paint so the baby and I wouldn’t inhale any dangerous fumes. John started work back at Chrysler on January 2nd, where the most common reaction from his colleagues seemed to be, “Are you back?” He still has mixed feelings about the future of the company but is pleased with his current position and pending projects and is planning to stick it out for the time being.

We had to wait nearly a month for our shipment to arrive from Germany. (Actually it took three weeks, but we asked them to deliver it a week later so we could get new carpet installed in the upstairs bedrooms.) Our shipment got stuck at customs for a while and I was terrified that they were going to rip holes in our boxes and go through our things, but all of our possessions arrived unscathed with the exception of one broken picture frame. In the meantime, I spent most of my days unpacking our belongings in the basement, rehanging artwork, and getting caught up on my writing. In the days after our shipment arrived, the house was a minor disaster area. I tried to tackle one project at a time – first the kitchen, then our bedroom closet, then the bookshelves in the living room. We went on a field trip to Ikea and bought new (smaller) office furniture, since our office will now have to double as the guest bedroom. Wandering the floors of Ikea (laid out exactly like its German counterpart) and listening to everyone speaking English was somewhat surreal. Not too surprisingly, we were comforted to hear a few German voices in the crowd.

It was a relief to finally get our kitchen put back together. I discovered a few items that I had left behind for the sake of saving space, like my favorite soup pot and steamer, and wondered what I had been thinking when I packed them away. I got started cooking normal meals again, but we soon discovered that our old kitchen left a lot to be desired. I had been spoiled by the well-designed cabinetry of our modest kitchen in Germany, and was now noticing everying that was dreadfully wrong with our kitchen in Michigan. We had been talking about remodeling the kitchen for a long time and we finally decided that now would be as good a time as any – especially before a baby arrives on the scene! I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks researching cabinets, countertops and appliances, collecting cost estimates, and, finally, choosing a designer to oversee our project, which will get underway in May.

Planning for our summer arrival has also been high on my agenda. Finding an OB/GYN practice, signing up for childbirth classes, and researching strollers, car seats, cloth diapers, and baby furniture have been all-consuming activities. Friends have donated boxes of maternity and baby clothes, which are much appreciated given that we have suddenly had to face the reality of a single income with no cushy expatriate perks. My dream is to start working on my novel again very soon. I know that my life will be turned topsy-turvy by the baby, so I hope to get some serious work done on my book this spring.

Readjusting to life in Michigan has not been as difficult as I expected. Perhaps we really had been mentally preparing ourselves for the move over those last few months, or maybe it was simply spending that interim week in an unfamiliar hotel environment that eased the transition. Coming back to our own house and belongings certainly made the transition easier as well. In the first few days we experienced the usual shock of suddenly being able to understand everything going on around us. In Germany, we had grown accustomed to being able to tune out surrounding voices and conversations in public places because it required such intense concentration to understand what was being said. When we walked into a store or restaurant here in Michigan, the impact of dozens of voices all speaking English simultaneously hit us almost like a tangible blow. After the initial shock, I have found that I enjoy being able to communicate effortlessly with the people I encounter in my day-to-day activities, and it is a huge relief not having to worry about understanding strangers every time they approach me with a mundane question.

Perhaps hardest of all has simply been getting used to the American lifestyle again. I am bombarded by the all-pervasive consumerism…the endless strip malls and fast-food restaurants, the constant barrage of advertising, the obsession with gadgets and the overwhelming desire for more and more “stuff.” I find it hard to believe how much of that “stuff” we have sitting right here in our house. After existing for two years on a relatively stripped-down lifestyle, I feel like there is an enormous amount of stuff that we can do without…and we are planning a summer garage sale to get rid of it all!

I am sickened by the “super-size” mentality of our culture. Everything is so big here…the roads are enormously wide and packed with hulking SUVs, houses and buildings and parking lots sprawl out over what could be open space…every product we buy comes in sizes several times larger than their European counterparts, whether it be milk, toothpaste or laundry detergent. Our neighbors produce enormous amounts of garbage week after week, while we continue to put one small bag in our can, still surprised that our garbage is actually collected more than twice a month (and we get a whole garbage can all to ourselves!). I have to remind John that only certain plastics go in the recycling, and the rest has to go out with the trash.

These initial impressions are starting to wear off as time goes on, but I think the pared-down experience of living in Germany will forever leave an impression on us. Here, they have to pound “reduce, reuse, recycle” into our heads. In Germany, it’s just a way of life.

I won’t lie; life is certainly easier here, and not only because of the lack of a language barrier. It’s fun to shop at that new gourmet grocery store down the road (on Sundays no less!) and know that I can pop over to a store at pretty much any time of the day or night when I run out of something. It is wonderful to be closer to friends and family again, who have welcomed us warmly back to the States. But I think John and I agree that we would have easily made the decision to stay longer in Germany if it had made sense for our future. We just “fit” there. We will never regret having taken the plunge, putting all of our trust in each other and establishing a new life for ourselves in a foreign country. We took on new challenges, traveled to amazing places, and made wonderful, lifelong friends. We learned a lot about ourselves and gained a new perspective on the rest of the world in the process.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned that there is much more to life than a full-time job. Burnt-out and ready for a change, I embraced the opportunity to become a Hausfrau with enthusiasm, and tried to take the best advantage of the free time at my disposal. I once thought that I would dedicate a good part of my life to a career in environmental protection. While that field will always be an important part of my life, I now know that I can gain fulfillment from many other activities. I’ve started down the road of writing as a profession, and hope to continue that pursuit as we start a family. Returning to America with a baby on the way has given me a new challenge to prepare for, and I welcome this next phase of that wondrous adventure called life with open arms.

One thing remains true: wherever we live, and whatever I do, part of me will always remain the Hausfrau.

For my readers who have come all the way with me, I thank you. I hope you've enjoyed the ride.

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