Meine lieben Freunde und Familie,
Greetings from the land of the law-obiding, briefcase-toting, pastry-loving, money-spending Frankfurters!
After what feels like years of waiting in anxious anticipation, I have at last touched town in Germany. It has been a crazy few weeks before, during, and after my arrival here, and I am just now beginning to catch my breath. The hopscotch of flights and exhausting 23 hours of non-stop travel was rough, but I am now fully recovered without a trace of jet-leg.
In case we've fallen out of touch over the past few months, let me catch you up: I will be spending the next year in Frankfurt, Germany working as an au pair for a family with three boys, ages 4, 8, and 10. Contrary to most au pair set-ups, I am not living in the home with the family, but rather in my own apartment a few blocks away. This is provided to me free of charge, in addition to a monthly stipend, German language classes at a local school, and from what I can tell, any other extracurricular activities I wish to pursue. Needless to say, this is a very generous au pair set-up that is not at all typical. Add to that the fact that, thus far, my employers are warm and caring, with a family as crazy and enthusiastic as myself, and I'd say I'm in for a good ride.
My apartment is small, but ideal for my needs (not to mention, it's mine, a fact not to be overlooked). It includes a small bathroom, a kitchen the same size, and a roomy 15'x15' closet/office/library/garden/dining/multimedia/living/bedroom/dance-hall. Amazing how the Germans could fit it all in. I was incredibly fortunate to have my brother, Hunter, help me move in and get situated my first few days here. I had an absolute ball rearranging furniture, organizing everything, clearing out the junk and redecorating. With Hunter's artistic design sense and appreciation for style and aesthetics - and my agreement with Hunter's artistic design sense and appreciation for style and aesthetics - we could have an interior design business.
The apartment is situated in a perfect location just north of the city center, along a small but busy street chock full of delightful cafés, shops, restaurants and boutiques. The city as a whole, but especially my charming little neighborhood, seems to have a distinctly collegiate feel: tree-lined streets swept clear of all trash, sidewalks apparently leading to nowhere, a palpable sense of wealth, and more parks than I can count. I am finding with each passing day that Frankfurt is an incredibly walkable city, both due to its compact size (you can tour all the highlights across the city in just over an hour), and pedestrian-friendly features such as wide sidewalks and efficient traffic signals. As Hunter and I explored the streets (me, the obvious tourist with map at the ready and camera on my wrist; Hunter, following a comfortable ten paces ahead to avoid any possible association with said tourist), we inevitably ended up retracing our steps because the city is so small. All of my daily necessities are within a five minute stroll, and if I am in search of some exotic ingredient or unusual book title, you can bet your britches it's within walking distance.
While the generally wealthy Frankfurters definitely prefer to buy new (their main shopping street and nauseating tourist hub, Zeil, generates more daily revenue than any other European location), Frankfurt is not without its second-hand stores. I've already stumbled upon four consignment shops, and seem to discover another new one each day. And these are in addition to the weekly Flohmarkt, a sprawling one kilometer expanse of hundreds of vendors, offering up anything and everything you can possibly imagine for rock bottom prices. Penny-pinchers, eat your heart out.
I haven't lived here long enough to truly get a sense of what life will be like, but that certainly hasn't stopped me from making superficial first impressions. Among them:
- Germans are hypochondriacs. Disorders such as Frülingsmüdigkeit ("Spring Sleepiness") and Kreislaufsstörung ("Circulation Disturbance") are taken very seriously, warranting one or more days off from work for rehabilitation. What's more, even the slightest ailments apparently require bandaging head to toe. I have seen everything from chin-bandages to entire-upper-body-harness/cast-bandages, all of which, obviously, require crutches. It seems like no matter what your condition, crutches will help. Broken toe? Have some crutches. Ear infection? Use crutches. Depression? Take the crutches.
- Come mealtime, (in)famous Frankfurt fares include Apfelwein ("Apple Wine" - A drink not too far removed from cider, only less sweet and less good) and Handkäse mit Musik ("Handcheese with Music" - A sour, fermented cheese often served with chopped onions and rye bread. It has a texture reminiscent of an eraser, a smell that could wake the dead, and a gastrointestinal effect that leads to the inevitable 'music' a few hours later).
- In the supermarket, typical "American" foods - hot dog and hamburger buns, peanut butter, and brownies, to name a few - are prominently displayed as such, with flagrant use of the stars and stripes all over the packaging.
- Rollerblading is legit. People widely accept rollerblading as a genuine form of public transportation, especially for the numerous business professionals commuting to work in decidedly non-casual attire. What's more, there seems to be an unspoken agreement that if one is going to embark on such a perilous and potentially life-threatening mode of locomotion such as rollerblading, one must don all manner of accompanying protective garb: helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, gloves, goggles, etc. I guess they fear spending the rest of their days in a full-body cast with crutches.
- Tall old buildings almost always have a golden rooster perched atop a weathervane. Must be in the building code.
- Germans love the outdoors. Restaurants don't even ask whether you want to sit indoors or out - it's implied you would prefer outside. It's not uncommon to pass a restaurant on the street packed to the brim with diners while a quick glance inside reveals a completely vacant dining room.
- Doorknobs do not turn; only door handles turn. To enter a residence with a doorknob, you must have a key.
- Older toilets have a small shelf inside the toilet bowl (the "shelf of shame", according to Hunter), upon which your...business...perches before being swiped away by the flush. This makes no sense, and smells awful. C'mon Germany, you win design awards all the time, why must the commode get neglected? Get it together!
- Phone numbers are wildly unpredictable, irregular strings of numbers that may include anywhere from four to sixteen digits, in addition to any use of parenthesis, periods, hyphens, or combination thereof. (My number, I swear, is 0049(0)1744-672-592, punctuation optional.)
- There are these gross little gum-ball and candy machines littered throughout the city that function much as those gumball/Skittles/M&M machines work in the States: put a coin in, twist the silver dial, and lift the door on the little spout to recover your treat. One key difference is the fact that these machines are located outside, and are thus prime locations for stickers, graffiti, and a host of toxic materials. Another is their age. They look as though they have survived through the First World War, and that the edibles inside are just as old. The cost is as few as 10 Euro cents – a bargain at first glance – but when you consider that you may be paying for a one-way ticket to the Krankenhaus, the savings don't really add up.
- I bought a petrified gum-ball from one of the aforementioned machines and really enjoyed it.
- Germans do not offer tap water. I have yet to receive free water while dining out. When asked, most waiters just shake their heads apologetically, while others seem amused by my adorable naïveté: "Tap water? . . . *chortle* . . . ohhhh no, we don't have that here. I'll bring a liter of Evian."
So now that I've got the first impressions under my belt and began to understand my place here, Frankfurt is beginning to feel a bit more like home. There are herbs growing on my window sill. I am whipping my camera out for fewer and fewer photos. I get a pacifying sense of familiarity when I stroll down my street. But most importantly, when I close my eyes at night, I drift to sleep with a big grin on my face because I know tomorrow I will wake up in my own bed, in my own apartment, in a great big city, in the middle of Europe, with the whole world out there just itchin' to be discovered.
The next few weeks are going to be very busy. I officially begin work as a full-time au pair this weekend when the family returns from vacation. Monday is my first orchestra rehearsal playing timpani with a local orchestra, the Frankfurter Orchester Gesellschaft (or FOG). We will be performing the stage music for "Hänsel und Gretel" in November. The following week I start my German language courses; three hours per class, three classes each week. And the week after that, I ponder to myself whether I have bitten off more than I can chew. Needless to say, I may be out of commission for a bit, but I promise to send more news when I get a handle on things and my life is once again routine.
Questions? Comments? Typos? I'd love to hear from you, so hit me back!