This is the sort of blog post that my friend Jess refers to as ‘more truthful than fun’ (if you could use another dose of Year Abroad musings in your life, I can highly recommend her blog, which is far more eloquent than mine: https://the1whogotaway.wordpress.com/. In fact, her last post ‘A Tale of Three Cities’ manages to much more concisely convey everything I wanted to say, and if I was technologically skilled enough to repost it, I would,). So if you’re not feeling in the mood for some rambling reflections, please feel free to make a cup of tea and watch a fun video instead.
A week of seminar in a small, rainy village outside Berlin with no internet access is a good time for reflection, especially when it is mandated by your seminar leaders, and I have been thinking about going home. Specifically, going home 3 times in the last 2 weeks – Coventry, Cambridge, Görlitz – and I realised that this three way split is something I’m finding really hard right now. As soon as you live in more than one place, I think a dull ache finds a place in your heart when you think about your other home. But suddenly, even though having 3 homes is not new, I am becoming more aware of them and the dull ache is starting to throb. I am not feeling home-sick exactly, but perhaps homes-sick… I am painfully aware that two thirds of my people aren’t at home with me, whichever home I go to.
It made me think back to a TED talk we watched on our first EVS seminar in October, by Taiye Selasi (if you’re interested, the link is here: https://www.ted.com/talks/taiye_selasi_don_t_ask_where_i_m_from_ask_where_i_m_a_local). See, after coming home from uni for the first time a few years ago, like a lot of people, I felt a little disorientated. A bit like someone had taken my identity and diluted it, because I was always packing and moving between 2 different worlds that didn’t always combine neatly, if at all. My head told me that I had no ‘real’ home, because I had no single home. It wasn’t until I watched this video that I felt permission to listen to the whisper in my heart telling me that my life was becoming richer with each new experience and with each new home, building a version of me which is more complicated to define but ever so real. Selasi talks of being multi-local, and uses the framework of rituals, relationships and restrictions to identify where ‘home’ is.
There are 3 churches and 2 schools and 1 university, spread across 2 countries and 3 different cities, where I am known. The staff in the supermarket in Görlitz recognise me, but not in Coventry or Cambridge, and yet the 2 libraries where I might be a familiar face are in the opposite places. I drink tea made with Sainsbury’s tea bags whilst packing Frühstück for school, I put on solid Hauschuhe rather than fluffy slippers because the floors are hard and dusty, I think in 2 languages. And, because I am not a local of Germany, but of the communities where I live, my rituals aren’t all English or German. I sing a Yiddish song, which once my mum sang to me, to a baby whose family fled from Afghanistan, I munch on the Spanish sausage Inma brought with her from Spain, I stumble through what remains of my French to talk to another volunteer, I answer with the Polish words ‘jako tako’ when Inma asks how my day was. These are my rituals.
I reply to messages from friends and family who are at home, my home, but not always in the home that I’m in right now, and from people who are linked to localities where I once was – a month in Kassel, a week at New Wine, an EVS seminar. I speak to those who live and work around me, in school, in the city, at church, at the language courses. These are my relationships.
I have a British passport, and a German place of residence. I have to live in Germany for at least 8 months, mandated by the powers-that-be in my Cambridge home, or I will not pass my degree – and I have to finish and submit a Year Abroad Project from a distance. I have no card access for the college that was and is and will be my home, a college that still sends me the menu for the canteen every day, but that seems suddenly very foreign after all the building work that has been happening in the last 8 months. In Görlitz, my life is constrained by the hours I work, the money I get paid, the extent to which I am allowed to decorate an apartment which is not mine. These are my restrictions.
My rituals, relationships and restrictions are a muddle of three different cities and three different parts of my life. They are entangled in me, and sorting out the strands of them is impossible.
And while we’re on the topic of being pulled in different directions, I’m not finding it all that easy to reconcile being a volunteer with being a student. Below is something I wrote after 2 months of being in Germany:
I am a volunteer – this much is clear. (Inma and I have got so used to being called ‘die Freiwilligen’ that when we were at a youth group a couple of weeks ago, they asked for volunteers for an activity and we practically jumped up out of our seats in case we had a job to do, before realising that they actually wanted children to take part). Quite often, volunteering is something extra, something different from your job or school, something which is hard work but feels nice and then you are finished and go home again. But volunteering here is our job, all week, all year. Our role was already written for us before we got here, as we are the newest in a long-ish line of EVS volunteers at our school. But we have never met those who came before us, and we probably won’t meet the volunteers coming next year, either, so we carve out our roles in the only way we know how. I don’t know if I’m doing it right (whatever right is).
I’m still a student, though. I have a dissertation to write – with no books, internet access for online resources, or, most importantly, motivation. Quite soon, I’m going to get an email from my lovely supervisor asking what I’ve done, and I will have nothing to show her for my time here so far, because all the volunteer-things don’t count as student-things. And (shock horror), the copies of Hammer’s German Grammar and Using German Vocabulary that I so optimistically brought with me for all the language work I was sure to be doing each day are lying untouched next to a pile of newspapers from the last month which I have also not read, and will probably hoard until I leave, ever-hopeful… So, of course, my German isn’t improving steadily every day. In fact, most days, all the things I want to say come too quickly for me to put the right words in the right order and I end up tripping over myself and making mistakes that would make a GCSE student cringe. (This is definitely a knock for my pride. But I have decided I would rather make hundreds of mistakes each day whilst giving 100% than hold back in an attempt to speak better German. I am a better volunteer for being a worse student…). And so, I forget grammar and vocab and that I have a Year Abroad Project to write, and that I should be diligently working on language work every day, and only remember that I have a place at a university back home when they contact me. (Side note: I’m loving this. Reading for hours each day and writing abstract essays does not come naturally to me at all, and aside from missing people terribly, I much prefer day-to-day work here, doing practical things and being with children. But it does make it harder to even pretend that I like essays when I’m out of the habit of doing them, and when there are fun alternatives, like doing acrobatics after school or baking cakes).
[As an update since then, my German has improved steadily, even when I haven’t noticed it, and even though the grammar and vocab books remain untouched and the newspapers are still sitting in a dusty pile in the corner. I am no longer in a state of denial about writing my YAP, and have been given deadlines by my DoS who promised to be ‘firm but friendly’ about demanding work from me.]
But the tension between these two roles is still there, which might be because I’m trying to live 2 years at once. You see, a Year Abroad was always pitched to us as ‘a year there’. Somewhere else, away from ‘normal’ student life, a place where we would go to and then return, hopefully wiser and better able to cope but essentially ready to pick up where we left off. Where we go, what we do, is less important than the fact that we are going away – and coming back. Whereas EVS is ‘a year here’. It doesn’t matter where we come from or where we’re going, just what we do with this year right now. It is a year of everyday life but also of adventures, to fire us off like arrows into new places. In school, my life in England remains a haze to those around me, a reality that must exist but that no-one has seen, and what is important is that I am here, right now, and ready to get on with whatever needs doing.
This year, both here and there, is going by quickly even when the days go slowly, and I have 4 ½ months left, which is not a lot. The reassurance that I ‘only have to stick it out for a year’, which I clung on to in the face of living so far away, is not comforting me anymore. In fact, it is making me feel very unsettled and confused. If my time in Germany was real, but ultimately irrelevant, it would be easy enough to wait it out and then go back to ‘normal life’. But I’m finding that it isn’t. In fact, the thought of only having a short time left in the school and community in Görlitz makes me very sad.
As we sat shivering in a room in drizzly Neukölln on our day trip to Berlin, our seminar leaders asked us to sit and brainstorm about the future, with a list of questions about what we’re good at, what we enjoy, and what the world needs. And I was fully expecting this to be not that hard. It’s something I’ve thought about often, and isn’t even an immediate question, as I’m going back for my final year at Cambridge next year. But then, in my seminar leader’s words, he found me ‘huddled in a corner against a radiator like a dying bird looking for warmth’ (thanks Lukas) – and I realised that I was finding it hard to picture not living in Germany. I am a home body, and I thought that would mean that I would always live in England. But now I have a home here too, the situation is not so clear. Going back to England will mean the start of a period where I start to mourn my life as an honorary German. I’m struggling to know what I’m more scared of… living in Germany one day, far away from a lot of my friends and family – or that I will live in England, forgetting that this, too, was real, and that Germany is also my home.