Reestablishing your life is tiring. I feel like that is a pretty obvious statement.
Now that I think about it, even moving from one place to another for work or school within the the same country is tiring. The naive part of me didn’t give much thought to what it would mean to rebuild my life in France before leaving. I was too distracted by the excitement of traveling to a new place.
I have since realized that that excitement is just temporary. When you’re traveling it is easy to wake up in a new place knowing you can move on in a couple of days if it’s not what you expected. Staying put, living, trying to put down some kind of roots, that is hard no matter where you are.
I know my last couple of blogs have been all about how I’ve been managing the details of settling in France. I’m generally optimistic by nature, so I’ve tried to put a positive spin on each roadblock. But let it be known that I would be lying if I said that things aren’t sometimes hard or frustrating or scary.
Right around the end of week two, it finally started to hit me that I would be in France for the next foreseeable part of my life. The weirdness of that began to sink in. Without even being aware of it, I had spent my first couple of weeks slowly making my way up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in my new environment.
Food–check; Shelter–check; Financial resources–check; Transportation–check; Phone–check. I guess the next logical step would be socializing.
That’s when–all at once–I started feeling emotional. I realized that I was in a place where nobody knew me. Not one thing. Nobody knows I spent many of my waking hours in college in a practice room with my flute, and I spend a whole lot of time contemplating social justice and identity, and I like to engage in lengthy conversations, and I like community organizing, and I hate overly crowded places, and I’d rather go to a concert hall, lecture, or library…and, and, and.
Some would say that it’s all very exciting. A chance to recreate yourself and all that. But last week, instead of feeling excited, I felt small. I felt like the life I was just beginning to create for myself in the US was not really a part of who I am in France.
It is as if there is no evidence for the things that I make up who I am because I have no relationships with people here. The people that I have shared these experiences with in the past, they each hold a part of me (wherever they may be), but none of them are in France.
Am I still a musician if no one has ever heard me play? Am I still an active citizen if I don’t have a community here in France? Am I just another number for the ticket count at the entrance of a museum? If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it still make a sound? These kinds of questions made me feel very existential, very quickly.
Maybe it was just the fatigue of settling down that was getting to me or maybe it was the frustration of wanting to engage in deeper conversations, but being self-conscious about my language abilities. Either way, I knew I couldn’t just sit around. I had to do something, anything.
Turns out that something was a somewhat impromptu trip to Germany.
Sandra and I met about a year and a half ago through a spring break service trip organized by our university. She was an exchange student from the University of Heidelberg with just a couple of weeks left of her year in the US. I was an American student with a couple of weeks left in my second to last year of school.
Long story short, our entire group got along very well and after a week I felt like we all parted as friends. When it came to the end of the school year, I didn’t know when the next time I would see Sandra would be.
As life would have it, I was placed in Nancy to teach English. Nancy is about 3-4 hours away from Heidelberg by car. Not too far away considering that one year ago, I was pretty sure I’d probably never see Sandra again.
Sandra had let me know when I first arrived in Nancy that her last week in Heidelberg was going to be around the third week of September. She would be moving away to another city for work after that. I made a note of the dates, but then found myself preoccupied with settling in Nancy.
As week two turned into week three, the feelings of smallness started enveloping the world around me. I found myself wishing that somebody near by knew me. Suddenly, the dates Sandra had given me flashed across my mind. And just like that, I knew it.
I knew I had to go to Heidelberg.
By Train, By Foot, By Bus
Being young in Europe has it’s perks. Being able to buy discounted train tickets is probably one of the biggest. I decided on Friday that I would go to Heidelberg for the following Tuesday through Thursday. By Saturday, I had squared away my round-trip transportation plans all for under forty-five euros.
Bonus Tip: Check out the Rome2Rio website for planes, trains, buses, ferries, and car share options to get you to where you need to go!
I decided to take a cheap regional train from Nancy to Strasbourg and then a Flixbus from Strasbourg to Heidelberg. Traveling this way gave me much more flexibility in departure and arrival times than traveling by direct bus or trying to find connecting trains. Plus I would get a couple of hours both ways to see a bit of Strasbourg by foot.
So, early Tuesday morning, I got myself onto a French regional train to Strasbourg. I love traveling by train. The stations, the sounds, the people. It’s a physical manifestation of the infinitive to go.
It took about an hour and a half to get to Strasbourg. When I got there, the super-nerd in me really wanted to go sit-in on a plenary session of the European Parliament, but I knew with only a couple of hours between my train and bus connection that that indulgence would have to wait for another trip to Strasbourg.
I ended up walking around the town and hitting up the most picturesque tourist spots. I admired the Alsatian architecture and canals of La Petite France, walked along the Quais Saint Nicholas, and visited the Krutenau neighborhood for lunch. Then I walked to the Place de l’Étoile to catch my bus to Heidelberg.
Side Note: I mapped out the majority of my trip on Google Maps, check out my trip map at the bottom of this entry. Zoom-in and zoom-out at your pleasure! For pictures, check out my Flickr account in the sidebar.
I got onto the bus to Heidelberg and crossed the border into Germany. As an American, the whole traveling within the Schengen Zone felt strange yet familiar all at the same time. Strange, because I knew I was going into another country where the signs were in a completely different language, yet there was no border control. No one stamped my passport. No one asked me any questions. Familiar, because in someways it felt like I was just going from state-to-state within the US. Welcome to Germany.
After about another hour and a half by bus, I found myself in Heidelberg. And finally, at the McDonald’s in front of the bus stop, there was a familiar face to greet me.
By Foot (Again), By Car
I hadn’t seen Sandra in over a year, but in a life that seems completely foreign to me, she was my closest tie to what seems like a previous life. I was happy to see her because it had been a while and I wanted to catch up. I was also happy to be in Heidelberg with someone who actually knew the town. Being somewhere is always so much more interesting when you’re with a local.
I would have been happy just to sit and talk, but we figured it was probably best if we made the most of my time in Heidelberg. We walked across the Heidelberg bridge, took in the sights of the old town, stopped by some university buildings, and hiked up to the castle. In case you didn’t know, Heidelberg is famous for it’s university, founded in 1386.
We met up with Sandra’s parents at one of the university’s restaurants for dinner, a local soccer match, and a Radler (50/50 Sprite and beer combo). After dinner we walked around old town a bit more and entertained the idea of going to a bar. Although, it was Tuesday night and the university was not officially in session yet, so everything was a bit dead. We headed back to Sandra’s apartment. When we got there, I checked my phone pedometer. I had walked 14 miles since that morning.
The next morning we met up with Sandra’s parents at the AirBnb they were staying at. They are not from Heidelberg, but were in town helping Sandra with her move. They were kind enough to be hosts to me for the day. The four of us took a day-trip to Dilsberg Fortress, where Sandra and I got too scared by swarming insects to go through the secret underground tunnel. We made up for it but climbing up the tower. We stopped by a historic town called Michelstadt and then took another short drive to attempt to find Siegfried’s famous fountain from the great German epic Der Ring des Nibelungen. We were not successful.
We headed back to Heidelberg, where Sandra and I met up with her friends for dinner. I was just happy to spend a day driving along the Neckar River, laughing about the silliness that is Schalger music, learning random words in German, and seeing little castles here and there.
Back to Nancy
The next morning, Sandra dropped me off at the bus stop, butter bretzel (a southern German take on the pretzel) in hand. I felt happy, comforted, ready to start again in Nancy, and ready to combat any feelings of smallness by reaching out to the people around me.
Thinking back on the trip, it’s hard for me to pinpoint an exact moment that made me realize that what I was feeling in Nancy is not going to last forever. It’s not like I woke up on Wednesday saying, “Hey! Today is the day I feel better.” As they say, most things really are a process.
I know that I went to Heidelberg looking for something–companionship, familiarity, a change of pace, and perhaps bit of adventure. I left Heidelberg with those things, but also with a bit of newfound bravery.
By seeing Sandra again, meeting her parents, talking to the friendly old couple that hosted the AirBnb Sandra’s parents stayed at, chatting with Sandra’s friends, being in a country where I actually don’t know a single word, listening to the German language fly past me, I realized a couple of things:
- I know more French than I’m giving myself credit.
- Not being able to communicate perfectly in a language is not a reason to stop being myself.
- Just keep trying to speak, listen, read, and think in French.
- It’s okay to switch to English every once in a while. It’s not going to take away from my French learning efforts unless I let it.
In the end, I’m so grateful to have been able to spend this time in Germany with Sandra. It wasn’t that long ago that our roles were reversed and I appreciated listening to her insights and experiences. Our late night talks about moving abroad, making and keeping friends, and the imperfect paths on which life can take us made me hopeful for my own time still to come in France.