“Why are you here?”
This was by far the most-asked question of what I was doing in Mannheim. You see, there are no Americans there, or at least very few of them. It used to be that Mannheim had a large US military presence. Before the base closed, that is. But even that was in the far outskirts of the city. I was living in downtown.
After a few weeks things started to become familiar. Maybe not as unfamiliar is the better phrase to use. At least for the first couple of weeks.
Southwest Germany in the summer is about as hot as at home, maybe slightly cooler. But my arrival in late August corresponded with the time the temperature started to drop. Where I was is about the same latitude as southern Canada, which I initially didn’t realize. A couple of weeks in, the weather started cooling. Trees began to lose their leaves, the sidewalks became awash in a sea of golden brown, red, and yellow. Shops, many of which don’t have air conditioning, began to leave their doors open all day. I left my windows in my apartment open, the cool breeze blowing in as the end of summer blended in with the beginning of fall. My apartment didn’t have air conditioning either, by the way. After a while you get used to it.
One thing I forgot to bring was a thick jacket to deal with the winters, mainly because I’d not paid attention to how far north I actually was. Southwest Germany is described by some as the hottest part of Germany. I’d prefer to think of it as the least cold part of Germany. Soon enough, I ran to H&M to get a thick jacket. It snowed on Halloween. Then when there’s too much ice on the train tracks the rail system shuts down.
It’s strange how when you move to another country to really truly live there, things start to evolve. At the beginning everything is new, and it’s exciting. New place, new language, new this, new that. When things begin to become normal and you still like where you are, that’s what really matters.
I paid my health insurance every month, I paid my rent every month, and the recycling goes out on the curb every Wednesday. Nothing different than at home. Things are so different, yet at the same time so much the same.
A few weeks in after all of the administrative things were finished, I could finally start to truly settle in to what was going to be my home for the next 5 months. Not only did I settle in, I became comfortable. More comfortable than I can probably tell you.
Living in a country not your own can be very rewarding, but only if you make it so. Things will be done in ways that you are not used to, and you have to accept that. In order to be happy, you have to realize that there are things that are not fixable in any situation. The things you need to focus on are the things that are fixable and within your control.
Things will be different. Things are different. Things are not as you are used to from home. There is a lot that you don’t know. There is also a lot that you’ll learn.
I was fortunate to realize all of these things, not immediately but pretty early on, and it made my transition a lot easier. So what if the refrigerator in my apartment isn’t the size of an American refrigerator? I’m in Germany, and Germany is not like the United States.
Language was the most obvious difference. Since Germany does have a large English-speaking population it is possible to get by with English only, especially in the bigger cities like Frankfurt or Munich. But I’d decided that I was going to learn as much German as I could. After all, it would be a shame to live here for 5 months and leave knowing nothing.
Learning a language is made a lot easier (though not really “easy”) when you’re literally surrounded by it every day and you are willing to put in the work. Very, very slowly I started picking up phrases. Numbers. Directions. Greetings. Other words. How to say a sentence in the correct order, since the word order in German is backwards compared to English.
Being American in a town with no Americans trying to learn a language that no Americans typically want to learn makes for some interesting experiences. People would ask me why I was making an effort to learn it, everyone speaks English, you shouldn’t bother. But I wanted to learn it, I said. Why live here for 5 months and not try?
It first snowed in October. On Halloween, actually. I begin to wonder how far up I can turn the heaters without going over my Nebenkosten amount, the average monthly cost of utilities like power, water, and heat/gas that are factored into my rent every month. Anything more than what I pay each month and the end of my lease I’ll have to pay the extra cost once the bill comes in from the gas company.
The best time was late fall and early winter when the Christmas markets opened. Decorations were everywhere. Christmas is also my favorite part of the year, so I’m biased.
Mannheim is a pretty big place, and there were 3 Christmas markets downtown. All of them were within walking distance of the enormous former royal palace on the southern edge of downtown on the banks of the Rhine River that served as the headquarters for the University of Mannheim. Students and businesspeople alike would frequent the markets after work or after classes had finished for the day.
A rebuilt 1700s palace where only one room was left undamaged after the many bombings Mannheim suffered during the war bordered blocks of post-war 1950s apartment buildings. Across from those were huge houses that used to serve as residences for the French officers that occupied Mannheim after the end of World War 1. In the middle of those 1950s buildings were three Christmas markets where food and mulled wine made with recipes maybe older than the country itself were served. One of these Christmas markets surrounded the water tower that was built in the 1800s, another historical relic that survived the bombings. Sprinkled among all of those buildings, no matter the age or when they were built, were countless hatches leading to bomb shelters. Today, many of them have been turned into underground parking garages but many that haven’t sit unused, their hatches sealed shut, reminders of things that happened long ago when the world was a very different place.
Three periods of history blanketed by layers of ice and snow. One country where an entirely different language is spoken is about an hour west. Another country where there are 4 official languages is about an hour and a half south. One of the most famous cities in the world was 2 hours almost due west of me. A city that was literally divided by a wall for 30 years is 5 hours northeast.
So much history. So many differences.