STILL Thankful…

Hello everybody! This is a link to the photos, as usual:

The Tuesday after Maggie left (after our bike tour) Adam and I went back to the Christmas market for our residence permit appointment at the migration office. We had been researching for weeks leading up to this about what documents Adam would need, since his situation is a bit more complicated than mine. We were pretty sure we had everything we would need for his "looking for work visa" which seemed like the simplest application route that would allow him to stay here with me. Since he doesn't have a job here and we aren't married, which would have allowed him to stay for "family reasons" none of the well-known channels were open to him. We got to the appointment early and after two different people verified our appointment registration number, we were showed into a waiting room.

My residence permit went off without a hitch, because Fulbright had told me exactly which documents I would need, and the fact that I am here through that program smoothed the process considerably, so my paperwork took less than 5 minutes to sort out. Not so much in Adam's case. They told us that the Arbeitsuchendevisum (looking for work visa) would be more complicated, but we had some other options. They informed us that he needed a "reason to stay" and when Adam responded that I was his reason, that was not considered legally sufficient. They advised him to sign up for an intensive German language course, and said that that would count as a reason. We would be able to just email the class registration form along with the copies of Adam's passport etc. to the migration office email they gave us and we would be set to go, they said. Optimist that I am, I thought: "No problem, we'll just walk over to the Volkshochschule, where they have these kinds of German classes, and sign him up, and he can take the ferry over for class everyday, it'll be great!" Well it didn't quite work out that way, alas.

Not only was the woman in charge of signing people up for classes on vacation for the next week, the next beginner level intensive German class didn't start until February….So I emailed the migration office back, asking if that would work, and if not, what other options we had—would an online class work, as a stop-gap before that one began? But I heard…nothing…back…and the clock was ticking. We had made the first available residence permit appointment that we could, but it was only a few days before our 90 days (the amount of time you are allowed to be in Germany as a tourist from the USA without a visa) were up. So if we didn't hear back soon, we concluded, he would have to leave by the end of the week, or else stay in the country illegally, potentially barring him from ever coming back in the future when he was inevitably caught when flying out of the country. And being Germany, they are pretty serious about their rules.

So it was a tense week. It felt a bit like the period after I found out I had gotten the Fulbright, but before I knew any information about where or what kind of school I would be at or any of the relevant detail that would allow us to move forward and envision what the next several months would look like. There was a lot to do, but we couldn't make any moves without some answers. After calling every language school in Rostock, and even considering commuting to Berlin or Hamburg, each option more expensive and inconvenient than the last, and as the days rolled on, things started to look pretty grim.

It was hard to feel grateful then, on Thanksgiving, when instead of celebrating with friends or family, we were looking at flights for Adam to leave the country on short notice. The rules had changed in the past couple of years too, so that one could no longer just leave the "Shengan Zone" (a group of European countries with similar visa rules) and come back the next day, and your 90 day visa-free period would begin again. Now the rule is called the 90/180 rule, so that within each 180 day period, you can be in the Shengan Zone for 90 days. In other words, you can come and stay for 3 months, but then you have to leave and stay away for another 3 before you can come back again. So it wouldn't be a quick trip either.

Part of me felt dumb for not foreseeing an outcome like this, for not researching more or somehow getting us an earlier appointment or…something. And of course there is always the voice in my head reminding me how lucky I am, how many people have it so much harder than me in every way. And that's true of course. Unlike many immigrants, I didn't have to worry about Adam's safety upon returning to his home country—it's not like we were fleeing danger in the US. Plus, we had done long-distance for longer than 3 months before anyway, for the semester early in our relationship when we both studied abroad, so it's not like it would break us up or anything. I trusted him completely, and we would be able to talk anytime over video chat too, so it wouldn't be like we couldn't stay in contact either.

Even with all of that, I mostly just felt sad. And angry and a little desperate even. Rationally, I knew everything would be OK, but that didn't change the fact that this was not the plan, not what we wanted, and that sucked. I have been trying to just let myself acknowledge and feel the feelings I actually have recently, rather than trying to analyze them away. Because, as obvious as it sounds when I read this sentence, it can be hard to keep in mind that just because there are people suffering much more than me, doesn't mean I'm not allowed to be sad sometimes too. There was this voice in my head insisting it was such a "First World Problem" that I shouldn't be complaining about, even to myself, I should just shut up and be grateful. But as it says in Emily and Amelia Nagoski's wonderful book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking The Stress Cycle, "Being grateful for good things doesn't erase the difficult things" (it really is a fantastic book, both well researched and easy to read, and I have been recommending it to everyone.) So, despite these pessimistic voices in my head, my optimistic tendency to look for the silver lining in every situation often cheers me up and keeps me going. At the same time though, it's absurd to expect to be cheerful at all times, and so I'm trying my best to accept the cruddy-ness of the situation, to acknowledge that it was not what I wanted, and to move through those feelings without wallowing in them.

So it was, that instead of attending the Fulbrighter "Friendsgiving" in Rostock on Saturday, I woke up at Maggie's apartment in Hamburg early enough to head to the airport with Adam. After his check-in counter finally opened, and we got all of his bags figured out, we said a quick airport "Auf Wiedersehen" (literally "on seeing you again" which I like better than goodbye, which feels rather final somehow) before he got in the security line.

Luckily, spending the day with Maggie exploring Hamburg, which despite the number of times I had traveled through it, I had never done, was a great distraction. It was a pretty horrible day as far as the weather went (so, typical northern Germany…) but we didn't let that deter us. We set out for a walk along the harbor—cold rain or no! We strolled along, taking in the huge ships to our left, and the city skyline to our right. After walking through the famous Elster tunnel under the river Maggie finally admitted that her wet tennis shoes had made her toes completely numb, so she set off for some dry shoes and socks. Originally I though she could get some dry socks and shoes and meet me back out somewhere for lunch, but after buying some postcards and strolling about a bit more, getting wetter and colder myself, I decided to meet her back at her place for a leftovers lunch instead.

The reheated curry was just as delicious as the night before, and it gave us the warmth and energy to head back out into the sogginess once again. We were both equally thrilled when the raindrops turned into the first snowflakes of the year—I don't think the first snow of the winter will ever not be exciting for me, I love the changing of the seasons! So it felt like a good time to visit the Christmas market near Maggie's apartment. It was much smaller and more compact than Rostock's market, set up as it was in the churchyard. We had to show our vaccine passes (or a negative test would have worked too) to get in, and we then got some Glühwein and hid from the rain (the snow had been sadly short-lived) in the crowded kids tent. I recognized and sang along with some of the carols from a German Christmas CD we had when I was a little kid too—a nice trip dow memory lane.

After finishing our wine (you don't want to sip too slowly because cold Glühwein is a bit of an oxymoron) we headed for the other nearby market next to the U-bahn (subway) station. Upon arrival, we decided to get some food to warm ourselves up, and the Kartoffelpuffer which is the German version of potato pancakes, were delectable! The vendor gave me a funny look when I requested horseradish in addition to the more traditional sour cream, and instead of the normal applesauce, but it really satisfied my craving for something savory. Maggie got some hot chocolate I think, opting for her warmth and calories in liquid and more crucially chocolate form. We found a spot partway under a shelter but the drips occasionally made it right down my neck, and my right sleeve was getting quite wet. I can hear my mother's voice in my head pointing out the virtues of wool here, because my coat did indeed keep me pretty warm despite being wet. Nevertheless, we strolled around the small market and then headed out before too long.

We made a quick pit-stop at a grocery store to pick up some snacks to take over to Mara's house later, where we had been invited for more Glühwein and a game night that evening. Mara is one of the teachers that Maggie works with at her school, and after becoming Maggie's running buddy, she kindly invited Maggie (and I got to tag along) over to her apartment—she is always eager to have game-night participants and to speak some English with native speakers. Thus armed with soft cheese and crusty bread, we headed back to Maggie's apartment to warm up before the walk to Mara's. We ended up watching a few episodes of "New Girl" since it is guaranteed to make me laugh and we had both already seen it and could therefore relax and not worry about the timing of finishing a movie before leaving.

The walk to Mara's house wasn't long, and after some brief introductions, and more Glühwein it became clear that Mara is a kindred spirit. Her main flaw quickly revealed itself: namely that she doesn't really like cheese…but I did my best to overlook this as we got to know each other, snacked and chatted. It proved a bit complicated to understand the somewhat complex rules of "Elfenland" the board game she taught us how to play, especially after we were on to our second mug of Glühwein. We did eventually grasp the rules however, and had a fun time plotting a path across the mystical board. It was quite late when we eventually said our goodbyes with promises to do this again sometime.

I headed back to Rostock the next day. Being the sweetheart that she is, fellow Rostock Fulbright English TA Karis met me at my house shortly after I got home and dropped off some scrumptious Thanksgiving leftovers, so I got a taste of the holiday this year after all. We had a lovely time drinking tea and chatting about politics and religion and crocheting. We decided to start up a weekly craft night with Amber (another Fulbrighter) too, since she is also an embroiderer and a recently obsessed knitter. Once Karis headed out, my new adventure of living alone for the first time ever began—having always had roommates or family up to this point.

And although this had not been the plan, I did my best to wrestle it into being an opportunity rather than just a bummer. As an introvert, I have no problem being alone, and other than listening to more music to fill up the quiet apartment, the transition hasn't been too difficult. I threw myself into lesson planning, and looked forward to our first craft night. I had been asked to talk to many classes about how I celebrate Christmas in the US, so I had a blast looking through old pictures I had pestered my aunt and uncle to send me, and putting together a slideshow of them to share. And of course, I needed my annual dose of Christmas movie watching, the usual steady stream of audiobooks, and I even began to knit some Christmas gnomes as little host gifts for all the people I would be visiting over the holidays—another fun thing to look forward to as well.

Gabi also invited me over for some Christmas cookie baking, which was a nice activity for the third Sunday of advent. Before this year, I never would have referred to that Sunday as such, but it turns out the Germans are super into advent over here. Gabi, Frank and I discussed the secularization of Christmas in Germany while rolling out the dough. Whereas in the US "Happy Holidays" is the PC thing to wish someone in December whose religion or background are unknown, people here universally wish you a happy 1st, 2nd or 3rd advent, as well as of course a "Frohe Weinachten" later in the month. The majority of Germans in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania are not registered with a christian church, with 81.8% identifying their affiliation as "other or none" according to Wikipedia, and so the celebration of the holiday has become quite separate from it's religious origins. During my Christmas presentations, several students told me that although their families are not at all Christian, they still look forward to Christmas as a time to celebrate being cozy, decorating the house, eating sweets, and spending time with friends and family, in addition to exchanging gifts.

While the celebration of Christmas by families without a christian background isn't unheard of in the US either, the openness about it is somehow different. I explained how the practice of giving out chocolate to public schoolers on St. Nicholas day, and the advent wreaths that one teacher had brought in and set up in her classrooms probably wouldn't have been allowed in the US, unless it was specifically presented in terms of "this is a cultural tradition that some people celebrate form a certain culture we are studying." It's hard to articulate the difference. I mean it's not like everyone who celebrates Christmas in the US is a weekly church-goer either, far from it. But I always got the sense that there are enough people who actively do not celebrate the holiday that it is seen as somewhat rude to wish a group "Merry Christmas" unless you know for sure that everyone celebrates it. But there is a sense here that 'it doesn't matter what you believe, you might as well eat some chocolate on December 6th because, come on, who doesn't like chocolate? And we're in Germany, so that's what we do.' This was exemplified in a story Maggie told me of someone in her German class explaining that they were Muslim and so didn't celebrate Christmas. The teacher blithely responded that "Well you are in Germany now, so you get to have Christmas too!" It somehow manages to feel welcoming and not at all like a passive-aggressive way to shove your religious beliefs down someone's throat, probably because the religious connection with Christmas is tenuous for so many Germans. From what I have seen in Rostock at least, it really has become a mostly secular holiday, more so than in the US. A case in point is the widespread celebration of advent, which I never heard discussed in the US outside of the church.

After Frank lit all of the many candles spread around the living room, turned on all the Christmas lights (including both the indoor and outdoor red-and-green laser display on the ceiling) we ate some cake and fruit and drank some tea. I then got to help roll out the dough for Vanillekipferl, a traditional horn-shaped German Christmas cookie with ground almonds, vanilla and coated in powdered sugar. This was in addition to a unique recipe from Gabi's grandma which was a basic dough shaped like a mini pretzel and coated in white sugar. We listened to the "Toten Hosen" Christmas album while doing so, which is apparently an Uminski family tradition. Why not spice things up with a punk band's take on Christmas after all?

We then watched the movie "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" which is another tradition that Gabi and Frank indulge in every year on the 3rd Sunday of advent. The movie itself was full of ridiculous and predictable slapstick humor, but it's hard not to enjoy watching something when your fellow viewers are as enthusiastic as they were—giggling and reciting the lines in German before the characters could get there in the English version we were watching. It is always funny to me which American movies become classics in other places, despite being nearly forgotten in their homeland.

Frank drove me home with a tin full of cookies sometime after dark. I'm not quite sure what time it was, but we had eaten some delicious soup after the movie and had some interesting discussions about world politics and cultural differences, as was usual with them. After all, "dark" describes most hours in the day this time of year—anytime after 4pm and before 8:30am, being as far north as we are up here. It does become hard to keep track of the passing of time when you spend so many hours awake in the dark. It was a good thing it was closer to 4pm than 8:30 am when I got home though, because even though the presentation I would give to the 8th graders the next morning was one I had already given, so there was nothing to prepare, I would still have to be at school almost an hour before the sun, so I needed to sleep.

The next week was sprinkled with presentations about Buche-Pattison American Christmas, or in the case of the 7th grade class I taught on Wednesday morning, UK vs. US Christmas traditions. That is the cool thing about having the luxury, so rare to most full-time teachers, of so much time to prepare lessons: I end up diving into the research and learning quite a bit myself.

It was very convenient to be able to get my booster shot right at school on Tuesday afternoon too. After another teacher was kind enough to print out the paperwork I didn't know I needed to sign, I waited in line for the German soldier to check me in. It was interesting to see that about half the people in line still had their red vaccine booklets with the hammer and compass emblem of East Germany embossed on the front. They had gotten them after their childhood immunizations when they were born as East German citizens, and had never bothered to replace them after their country changed around them. In most ways, it's easy for me to forget that Germany wasn't always just Germany, and that I would have been in a completely different country only a few decades ago.

Eventually it was my turn and I went back to the classroom where a nurse gave me, because I am under 30, the Pfizer shot, or Biontech as it is know here by the German company's name. After waiting in another classroom for 15 minutes to see if there would be any allergic reactions, I was free to head home, with advice not to do any "sport" or drink any alcohol for the next 3 days. So I biked…slowly…home.

On my way, I was able to stop off at the pharmacy and get the QR code I would need to upload to the CovPass app, and finally be able to easily flash that when entering restaurants, Christmas markets, and increasingly stores. This would be a great improvement, since I wouldn't have to explain that yes, the flimsy (and at this point rather ragged-looking) CDC vaccine card really was as official as it got in the USA. This is one of the instances where, despite being so un-digitized in terms of banks and governments offices, Germany seems to have actually leapfrogged past the US where (at least in August when I left) there was still no vaccine passport app widely in use that I knew of.

Luckily, the only side effects from the booster that I woke up with the next day were a mildly sore arm, no worse than a flu-shot, and some tiredness. Though the tiredness could hardly even be blamed on the shot, and was much more likely to have stemmed from good, old-fashioned lack of sleep, since I had been up way too late finalizing that US vs. UK Christmas presentation, and then had to get up, get to school and teach half the lesson in complete darkness. Later that week the armpit of my vaccine arm did get a bit tender and swollen, but I never felt sick or anything, which was a relief. I was able to finish off the week strong then—relishing the inevitable buzzing "it's almost Christmas break" excitement palpable among both students and teachers. On Friday I brought my backpack packed for the weekend with me to school, and set off for Hamburg as a stopover before jetting off to Paris on another adventure with Maggie.

So as you can see, it's not too hard to find the silver lining. I can easily convince myself that although Adam's visa debacle was stressful, unexpected and disappointing, I still do have so much to be thankful for. I am so lucky to be here for this year at all, and to have met so many amazing people here who are supporting me in lots of ways.Despite the pandemic, I have had such fantastic travel opportunities on top of everything else, thanks to the availability of both tests and vaccines here. Next stop, Paris!