Updated on Tuesday 5 March 2013
I have been back home for three and a half months. I left home three and a half months ago. It really is a matter of interpretation. Home is Germany, where I was born, where my family still is. And home is America, where I lived the past four years, where I studied and met my boyfriend. A little more than three months ago, I left my American home to return to my German home.
Before my final move, every time I left my boyfriend in the US to go to Germany on vacation, he'd say to me: "Come home to me in one piece." My parents, on the other side of the ocean, had their own recurring message to their daughter in America throughout the course of four years: "We're really looking forward to your coming home." So I got used to having two homes. One in Germany, and one in America.
Things started getting complicated, when I started moving-in America, where I lived in six different homes in three states. While I became surprisingly adaptable (I learned how to breathe, eat, and sleep everywhere), I got confused about which place was home, and which home to miss - the one in Germany or the one in the US I had just left.
The first major move I made was from the East to the West Coast. For a year, I'd lived on Long Island in a little studio apartment right by the water. I'd loved my place there so much, I couldn't ever imagine having to leave it. But I had to. It was rented. And it wasn't mine to keep. Besides, I had been accepted at a school in Monterey, California.
I remember my curly-blonde next door neighbor on Long Island dangling his car keys in my direction when he stopped me in the driveway. He grinned broadly and said, "So, I hear you're moving to the West Coast? That's going to be so - different."
"But it's still America, ain't it?" I said flippantly, slightly nervous about his statement.
"Well, I'm not so sure about that," he said, looking not at all flippant but quite serious.
Once in California, I felt the difference my neighbor had been talking about with every step I took. Nothing-not the landscape, not the people, not the food-reminded me of the East Coast. I giggled at the sight of palm trees, feeling a little pinch in my heart when thinking of the pine trees I'd left behind. Monterey people were so relaxed, they had time. Even though I'd lived on Long Island, where people weren't exactly in a New York City frenzy, I missed the energy of East Coast life.
I missed the change of weather. In Monterey, there was fog every morning, by noon it had cleared up, and the afternoon was happy to provide us with 67F seven days a week. I missed the dark strength and churning of the Atlantic ocean and stared at the deep blue, calm Pacific as if trying to will it into becoming more energized. I felt nothing but annoyance when my search for a new apartment led me along the Seventeen Mile Drive, an area that tourists come to see from all over the world. But I, I didn't appreciate its beauty. I wasn't even sure if I was still in America, that is to say the America that I'd got accustomed to.
The first time I went to a Californian supermarket (a so-called "Safeway," mind you, not a New York "A & P"), I walked through the aisles looking for my favorite drink of choice, Poland Spring Water. All I found was Arrowhead Mountain Water. My hand hovered above the bottle, didn't seem to want to grab it. I was confused about my state of mind. It's really no big deal, I mumbled to myself, why don't you just buy that Arrowhead Mountain Water? Because it sounds wrong, my inner voice whined. Because it's not what you always drink.
And then it hit me, right there and then, that what I was just experiencing, lost in the middle of the beverage aisle, was a minor culture shock. More than upset, I was baffled. I had heard people talk about "culture shock" but I hadn't experienced it when moving from Bavaria to New York State. The reason for that was probably that I'd spent so many vacations in New York that the area wasn't foreign but quite familiar to me before I even moved there. The first American Water I'd known was Poland Spring Water. California with its Arrowhead Mountain Water was a foreign, foreign land to me.
My family in Germany didn't feel anything had changed. To them, I was still gone. Only, the time difference was now nine hours instead of six, and they had to count and calculate a little more before they gave me a call. But to me it felt like having moved to a new country. When I rambled on about experiencing a "culture shock," they listened patiently on the phone, even though they wondered how different West Coast America could be from East Coast America.
The first month in Monterey, August, went by quickly. I had started classes and bought some furniture from garage sales-an attempt to turn the unfurnished apartment into a home. I'd become friends with my roommate and the snow-white neighborhood cat. I actually thought I was slowly but surely getting used to living in Monterey.
In September, I was torn between missing my New York home and my best friend there and wanting my German family by my side to help me settle into that still half-empty Monterey apartment. I became envious of my roommate, a person so kind she didn't deserve my envy. Yet every Friday, she whirled out the door, her many-colored flowery dresses and dark hair swaying as if resonating her excitement in seeing her Russian family and boyfriend over the weekend. She'd lived in America for more than ten years. Her family had emigrated from Russia. And--almost with a childish inward sigh--I pouted, wondering why my roommate was "allowed" to see her Russian family, but I couldn't see my German family. I couldn't even drink East Coast water. Now, I missed two homes, while trying to make a third.
By the time October rolled around, I was miserable with both my choice of school and my choice of location. I didn't even like the neighborhood cat anymore. She'd started to get proprietary and scratched my legs every time things didn't go her way. In November, I ate a TV-Thanksgiving dinner and mailed out applications to schools on the East Coast. In December, when I'd secretly started ridiculing Californian Christmas trees that didn't have a trace of snow or rush of cold air around them, I got accepted by a university in Connecticut.
I remember leaving Monterey on a warm late December morning. I "skipped town" in a little airport bus that picked me up close to the Safeway. There were eight seats, but I was the only one in the car. As the bus drove through the chocolate-colored, soft-shaped hills and mountains to the airport, I let out tiny puffs while anxiously holding my breath, waiting for a horrible thing to happen (like a blown tire) that was going to keep me there for more hours than I could bear to be.
After a short Christmas break in Germany, I moved into an apartment building in New Haven, Connecticut. I'd desperately wanted to live in that building since it looked so nice-from the inside and the outside. Its looks were important because, frankly, aside from its university buildings, New Haven is an ugly town. Even subjective eyes like mine, eyes that saw the East Coast as heaven on earth compared to California, realized that New Haven wasn't going to win a "Pretty Town Award." But I loved it from the get-go-for the single reason that it wasn't Monterey.
My new apartment building was squeezed in between impressive and--what seemed to me ancient--Yale University buildings. In Monterey, I had seen a "square" of the Pacific from my kitchen window (quite a nice view, actually); here, I saw tall old Yale towers. The view, I thought, was fantastic.
The first night I stayed in my new place, most of my stuff was still at a UPS pick-up counter in the outskirts of New Haven, and I hadn't bought a mattress yet. So I spread winter sweaters and layers of coats and shirts on the floor to make my temporary bed a little softer. Then I snuggled into my sleeping bag, grabbed the book I had bought at the train station and my flashlight (the building manager had turned off the electricity when the last tenant left) and settled down on my "bed."
The shadows on the walls painted strange figures. The gurgling sound coming out of the bathroom, my empty room, and the voices echoing from the hallway were disquieting. It was cold outside, many degrees colder than 67F. And there was snow on the ground-"snow" that foreign word that seemed to be a useless dictionary noun in Monterey.
I knew I wasn't in New York state, where I really wanted to be. But I was on the East Coast-close to home, the place by the water on Long Island. Next to my self-constructed bed stood a small water bottle. "Poland Spring Water," the pine-green label said, "found deep in the woods of Maine." And I slept well that night.
* * * * *
Yesterday, I walked into a supermarket in my little Bavarian town. It wasn't a Safeway or an A & P, but a Neukauf. And I didn't buy Arrowhead Mountain Water or Poland Spring but Adelholzener, Bavarian mineral water. This time, my hand didn't hover above the bottle-it swung the bottle back and forth while I strolled through the aisle towards the cashier. I know it's not my favorite water, not my drink of choice, but the culture shock didn't come. It should (or could) have been, from what I read on the Internet, a so-called "re-entry shock" when returning to the "country of origin."
While there have been incidents, when I've marveled at the size of German toilet paper (rounder and smaller) and the shape of German light switches as opposed to American toilet paper and American light switches, and while I have been avoiding watching American movies on TV dubbed in German (this triggers nothing but amused giggles that may, as I imagine, bug my family), I have been spared a full-blown culture shock ever since I stepped off the plane in Munich in March--and I enjoy being in Germany.
The secret is adjustment, adaptation. America has taught me how to adapt. America has taught me how to deal with having two homes. And being in one of them, I'll always miss the other. I know that now. And knowing that, I'll adjust by drinking any kind of water.
by A. J. Neudecker